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New Rules Produce Familiar Result At Atlanta

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 4 2015

Jimmie Johnson was a lonely man as he took the checkered flag at Atlanta last Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

It was 10 years ago that Brian France summoned a small group of reporters to the NASCAR hauler in the infield of Kansas Speedway to talk about the future of Sprint Cup Series machinery. The centerpiece of the CEO/Chairman of the Board’s talk in that cramped, quiet office that day was a radical redesign of Sprint Cup cars.

The new cars, which would come to be known as the Cars of Tomorrow, featured rear-deck wings, protruding front splitters and a boxier overall shape. France explained that the purposes of the redesign were three; to increase safety, be more economical to design and build, and to improve raciness.

While NASCAR officials hit hard on the first two reasons, it was the third which, some say, was the major impetus for the introduction of the CoT.

NASCAR at the time was under seige by an invasion of engineers and flow dynamicists. The cars were no longer stock cars but purpose-built tube-and-skin fascimilies of stock cars. They were shaped to be slippery in an aerodynamic sense and a byproduct of that was the further elimination of  the ability to run nose to tail, to “sling shot” and to produce the kind of tight racing at the front of the field that had attracted many fans to the sport in the first place.

The CoT did make racing safer. There is simply no room for doubt about that. Cheaper? Highly debatable. Racier? Not so much.

The CoT did make it easier for fans to get into rest rooms at tracks and buy food at concession stands as the program has been blamed for thinning out crowds on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons at the giant racing stadiums.

The CoT program was eventually scraped but NASCAR’s quest to recapture the kind of racing that makes buying a hot dog and peeing more of a chore has continued on.

And without much success.

The latest attempt at producing the Holy Grail of non-stock car that would bring back old-time racing – if that ever existed in the first place – took to the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway last Sunday.

Off-season rule changes to the cars included reduced horsepower (by mandating tapered spacers to reduce airflow to combustion chambers) and reduced downforce (by use of shorter rear spoilers).

As the Atlanta race rolled on, it became apparent that the new changes were being about as effective as previous changes. Cars out in clean air were tough to catch and then, tougher to pass. The race ended with Jimmie Johnson being able to run away and disappear from those behind him after he restarted at the front of the field with 14 laps to go.

In the garages after the race, neither drivers nor crew chiefs were not attacking the new rules. Just downplaying their effectiveness.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick Motorsports said, “This car is the same old car, man. They didn’t….the rules changed a little bit, but they drive the same and actually qualified faster than we did last year. These things…it is a good race car. The rules aren’t going to be that big of a deal.”

Also unveiled at Atlanta was on-board track bar control. That, too, played to merely polite applause.

“I don’t think that thing is going to be that big of a deal anyways,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I wasn’t too worried about it. We can adjust the car on pit road.

“I’ve been messing with it a lot. I haven’t found it to be anything that sets the world on fire. Actually moving it down really just hurts my car. Moving it up made the back swing a little bit too much. I never used it and got happy about it.

“It might work a little better at some other tracks, particularly the ones that have a ton of grip where you can kind of tweak it a little bit here and there, feel the balance change. At a place like this, moving it didn’t seem to make a big deal.

“I think it will help you a lot when your car is way, way out to lunch. It will Band‑Aid until you can get it to pit road and work on it. I don’t think it’s going to be much of a story after a few races.”

Some in the garages held out hope that the new rules package would move closer to desired effect this weekend when the cars take to the track at Las Vegas.

“Atlanta is a bit of an anomaly with the tire wear, the way the strategy plays out,” said Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson.  “Most of the racetracks we go to, you don’t have that much of a tire fall‑off. From our standpoint, it was a challenge.”

But it appears that the search for raciness in Sprint Cup will continue on. Perhaps Gen 10 or 15 or 20 cars will produce the kind constant side-by-side racing and constant passing for the lead that both fans and NASCAR want.

Perhaps, even, Vegas will show that the current cars are capable of those things.

But as for Race 1 of the tapered spacer/low downforce era, racing was same as it ever was. That is; interesting but not exhilarating.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 4 2015
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