FENWICK: Too Much Aero, Too Little Passing

Adam Fenwick

CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR has tried everything to make the Monster Energy All-Star Race exciting.

Inversions, eliminations and this year’s new twist — a softer tire compound — have been among them. Unfortunately, nothing has really worked. For a race that is promoted as an all-or-nothing, winner-take-all fight to the finish, it hasn’t been very exciting in recent years.

NASCAR’s decision to try a soft tire compound for the May 20 All-Star Race had us excited. We believed it would create an opportunity for passing at a track that has consistently been one of the most difficult tracks on which to pass.

Despite the best efforts of NASCAR, Goodyear and the Charlotte Motor Speedway staff, the softer tire compound simply didn’t work. Yes, there was a speed difference when teams bolted on the softer tires, but it wasn’t substantial enough to impact the race.

As it turns out, the problem is the same as it has been for some time, the aerodynamics of the cars are simply too good. Any car that got out front could either maintain or pull away from the rest of the field.
There were only two passes for the lead during the All-Star Race and both came immediately after restarts. Jimmie Johnson, who won the third stage of the All-Star Race and was one of those drivers to complete a pass for the lead during the race, was blunt in his assessment of the racing.

“We all run the same speed,” Johnson said. “The rulebook is so thick, and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can’t pass running the same speed. It’s just the bottom line.”

Johnson’s not wrong. At a track like Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of several 1.5-mile ovals that make up much of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar, the top cars are generally running so close in speed that the differences are minimal.

Teams and the drivers play within the box that NASCAR builds for them. NASCAR builds that box to keep the teams within the limits of the rules. Both sides know it. That’s just how the game is played.

So how what can be done to solve this problem? That’s a fantastic question.

As much as fans wish for it, we’re not going back in time to the 1970s or ’80s when aerodynamics were less important. It’s 2017 — aerodynamics are important and we’re just going to have to deal with it.

Do we go even further with the soft tire idea? In theory, the idea is sound. Create a softer tire that offers more grip and that should create more passing opportunities. The Monster Energy All-Star Race was essentially a test session for the idea of using softer tires. Some may say the idea was a failure, but we believe it was only the first test of a valid idea.

Now that they have some data to work with, we hope NASCAR and Goodyear officials take another shot at this. Schedule a test somewhere, bring different tire compounds and see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t give up on the idea because the first experiment failed. If Thomas Edison had quit trying to create the light bulb after his first attempt failed, where would we be today?

Johnson says that despite the lack of passing in the All-Star Race with the soft tires, he thinks the idea could work if given a chance.

“We see it work in Formula One. We see it work in IndyCar,” he said. “Personally I don’t have a problem with trying it. I really don’t. It’s better than having a button that makes the wing go down or a button that gives you more horsepower.  I think it’s, you know, a good way, a competitive way, not in a gaming sense, just a competitive way to create different paced cars in the field.”

Are softer tires the answer? There is no way to know. It could work if given a chance. But maybe it won’t. So what then? No one, not even a seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, has the slightest idea.

“I’m like everybody else that is involved in this sport. I have an opinion, but I don’t have the answer,” Johnson said.