The 2017 NASCAR Media Tour, hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway is using a very different format his year. Drivers from the top three series are brought into a large media ‘bullpen’ for about 10 minutes of questions by over 200 journalists from all over the world. With so many different things going on at this point of the preseason, subject matter jumps around like lug nuts on a pit stop. So to avoid bouncing around, we’ll just bring you the most quotable on the hot topics.
NASCAR’s new race format is the most discussed. Current Champion, Jimmie Johnson, said, “The championship piece, we still get to Homestead and it’s very similar for that event itself. How you get there is a bit different. The big takeaway I have is when you put all the smart people in the room and let everybody decide what it could and should look like, from TV owners, NASCAR, and driver representation, I think that’s a smart move. And, I feel that knowing our environment and knowing how to take the best from each of those folks in the room, all the major stakeholders, and come up with this system, I have a lot of faith in that.” Johnson added, “There’s incentive to go out there and perform. As a competitor, it’s tough to say that’s going to change much of what I do. But I know there will be opportunities where that (bonus) point (for winning one of the first two stages) matters for someone. It might take people from being at the 100-percent mark to being even more desperate and creating those storylines.”
Jamie McMurray likes the opportunities, “But, I like the strategy that’s going to come from the format. And the best way to describe that is if we go to a track that it rains a lot and they have to have a competition caution, it’s great when the caution happens to fall 10 laps before that because you get some strategy. You get people that put tires on. Sometimes the leaders don’t. If it’s a track where the tires are really important, it creates a little bit of excitement, right? You have a lot of passing going on. Then the caution comes out 10 laps later and you get to see if those guys all pit. Did they make up enough ground? So, I like the fact that we’re going to have that every week.”
Ryan Newman also digs the strategy aspect, “I think that the strategy of the races, the mixture of importance of a bonus point for a stage win in reference to how you race each stage and the last stage, which ultimately is still the most important points-wise, is unique and going to be fun to follow. It is going to be a challenge to learn the system, but I don’t think it’s a complex system. With the right technology, it can be easily adaptable to the fans, which to me is extremely important. And I think the thing we’ll talk about with this new structure will be the one point that goes into the Chase per stage and the still bonus structure that still goes into the Chase and is now cumulative throughout the Chase because we’re all racing for wins but the big trophy is always going to be that championship.”
Clint Bowyer remarked how he’s always been a fan of “breaking these races up.” Bowyer has his own racing operation for running a busy short track schedule where the action is usually nonstop.
Michael McDowell noted that as his team is one of the smaller ones, the Stages will, “give us a chance to be aggressive.”
Kyle Busch was on the Drivers Council that worked on the new format and said, “The Drivers Council had a little bit of say in all of that. Obviously it was a huge industry-wide (decision). All the stakeholders were involved … I think late-December and January was when the decisions were finally being made but some of the ideas that were shared earlier on were last year’s Council’s (ideas) as well.”
Landon Cassill spoke of the challenges, “I think you still have to be determined. To me, that’s the beauty in it. I think this is a big change. I think that the way our crew chiefs and race engineers strategize a 500-mile race is gonna change as we know it, and I think you’re gonna see the field flip multiple times in these races over the course of the year. I would be willing to bet that our first impression of this new format in Daytona you’re gonna see a huge group of cars taking a risk and pitting on their own on lap 43, and getting off-sequence. And I think you’re gonna see the field off-sequence a lot this season, and it’s gonna be really interesting. I think you’re gonna see teams like myself, where we’re constantly trying to fight our way inside that top 20, I think you’re gonna see us caught in the middle of some of that action over the course of the year. The teams that have to fight, we’re always gonna have to fight. We’re not magically gonna be top 10 teams. We have to work to get there. We have to work very hard to get to the top 10, but I think you’re gonna see us in the crossfire of this strategy a lot.”
We wondered if the Stage format would alter chassis setups to help with long race to short stages. Noted chassis-savvy drivers, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman gave us exclusive answers and said chassis setups would remain for long race as anything less would be counter productive to the rest of the race. Plus, some of the chassis changes needed for a short run are not possible pt stop changes. Like the old days of qualifying setups versus race setups, things like camber and gearing are not typical pit stop changes.
Newman also talked about the new rule lowering the height of the rear spoiler. The move is designed to reduce downforce, thereby giving more control back to the driver. He indicated about as quick as NASCAR reduces it, the teams find ways to restore it. The current change of only the rear spoiler might upset the delicate balance of the car. Newman explained how teams seek the ideal amount of front to rear balance. Another factor is the rubber – not only of the tires but how much a track surface retains. That can affect downforce.
One thing all drivers agreed upon was the Carl Edwards mystery. They were all taken by surprise by Edward’s departure.
In our Nuts and Bolts department, Kurt Busch talked about the Stewart Haas team changing from Chevy to Ford and how even the chassis had to be modified to accept the Yates engines. Normally, it’s just a matter of brackets and mounts but other factors of weight and the location of that weight need to be addressed as they can affect chassis setups. Running oil, water and fuel lines also may factor in.
We are also hearing how, after NASCAR reduced testing, more time and money are spent on ever advancing simulators. The machines are filled with huge amounts of data and both drivers and team engineers benefit from it. And if you are keeping track, a typical headcount for engineers per team is now 70 to 80, according to one driver.