Thursday, January 21, 2016

Chase arrives, but one change baffles

After two wildly successful years of NASCAR's knockout format for the Chase in Sprint Cup, there was a sense that the formula would trickle down to the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series as well.
As of Tuesday, the vision of change turned into reality during NASCAR's annual preseason media tour at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It won't be on as big a scale as it is in Cup, but the two lower-tier national series now have a Chase format to call their own in the race for the championship in 2016 and beyond.
Both the XFINITY and Truck series will do their Chase over the final seven races of the season. XFINITY will have 12 eligible drivers and the trucks will have eight. Across all of the series, round names have been eliminated. While XFINITY will eliminate four drivers after each three-race round, the trucks will only send two to the sidelines before the Championship 4 are set for the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And all Sprint Cup regulars are not eligible to race in either the XFINITY or trucks finale, which is an outstanding development. No clutter, just the focus on who will win the title.
The XFINITY series will have an interesting new twist during the season with the introduction of four Dash 4 Cash races -- Bristol (April 16), Richmond (April 23), Dover (May 14) and Indianapolis (July 23). There will be two heats (with odd- and even-numbered starting positions) and a main, similar to a typical Saturday night at a local short track.
The top two XFINITY regulars (no Cup drivers) from each heat become eligible for a $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus. If a driver wins two of the bonuses, it's as good as a regular race win and all but assures a spot in the Chase.
The XFINITY Chase begins with the opening round at Kentucky (Sept. 24), Dover (Oct. 1) and Charlotte (Oct. 7). When 12 get cut to eight, those drivers will face their last chances to make the finale at Kansas (Oct. 15), Texas (Nov. 5) and Phoenix (Nov. 12).
The Camping World Truck Series Chase races its first round at New Hampshire (Sept. 24), Las Vegas (Oct. 1) and Talladega (Oct. 22). After two drivers are eliminated, the final chances to get to Homestead happen at Martinsville (Oct. 29), Texas (Nov. 4) and Phoenix (Nov. 11).
But while the Chase is a welcome change, the truck series has a new rule being used throughout the 2016 season that can only be described as baffling.
A "caution clock" will run and a yellow flag will be displayed every 20 minutes from the drop of the green flag. If a caution comes out before that time expires, the clock resets once the race restarts. With the exception of Pocono and the road course at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the clock is turned off for the final 20 laps.
At Pocono and CTMP, the clock is turned off over the final 10 laps due to the larger size of the tracks.
Quite frankly, I simply don't get why this rule is being implemented. It will make fuel-mileage racing a distant memory.
One of my favorite truck races from 2015 was when John Wes Townley won the Rhino Linings 350 at Las Vegas. There were exactly three cautions over the 146-lap race and the last 94 laps were run under the green flag.
It led to fuel-mileage gambles that backfired. Matt Crafton's fuel ran out with six laps left, and Cameron Hayley followed soon after that. Townley stayed out of trouble and earned his first series win in a pretty cool moment.
In terms of time, the race was run in a nice 1 hour, 38 minutes. With this new rule, there would be four additional yellow flags thrown simply for the short-attention-span crowd, and that's terrible.
Only two of last year's 23 CWTS races were run in over two hours. There were an average of 5.9 cautions per race, and two had more than 10 (Martinsville 2 with 12, Eldora with 13). The average time it took to finish a trucks race was 1:44.
If we do the math with the 20-minute caution formula, we are potentially adding six more cautions to the legitimate ones that are simply a part of the racing.
That makes no sense at all. It's a dumbing down of the racing and creating unnecessary time and expense for the race fan. That is truly a shame, but the only way we'll know how well it works is to put it to the test on track.
Let's just say there won't be a ringing endorsement from the Gear Box staff anytime soon.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Goodyear test wraps up at Las Vegas

With the first official opportunity to work on the new lower downforce package, four past NASCAR Sprint Cup champions put the wraps on two days worth of Goodyear tire testing a cool, gray cloud blanket at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Kurt Busch (2004), sporting the fire suit of new sponsor Monster Energy, called the changes being made to the car "nothing too dramatic."
"We're trying to find the best possible combination of speed, handling and making the tire durable," Busch said during a lunch break between the morning and afternoon sessions on the 1.5-mile oval. "Most importantly, putting together a good product on track so the cars can race side-by-side more easily."
Matt Kenseth (2003) said the test at Las Vegas is only a small part of the work that lies ahead with the Daytona 500 only six weeks away.
"There's so much more that's done these days with computer simulation, the wind tunnel," Kenseth said. "It's nice to run those things at the race track to validate, but everyone's so much smarter with computers and engineering, everything's still going to be pretty close when you get to the track."
Kenseth came away from the Wednesday morning test impressed with the speeds, but cautioned to not read much into them.
"It's surprising how fast it's been, but we didn't do much with in-car stuff, just work on tire combinations," he said.
Six-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson added that while his No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet was fast, the lack of tire falloff wasn't due to any issues with the lower downforce that should make the cars more challenging to drive.
"In the Kansas test (last season) with this package, we were able to create a lot of falloff with the tire," Johnson said. "With these cool conditions and the surface still so good, it's tougher to bring the falloff we're looking for. Bottom line...we were really fast."
Brad Keselowski (2012 champ) said last year's success with the low downforce package at Kentucky (6th-place finish) and Darlington (second) gave his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion team plenty of reason for optimism heading to Daytona.
"Those were two of our best races last year," Keselowski said. "We're ready to work through the challenges."
In addition to the new downforce package, Ford introduced a new body style for the Fusion that Keselowski and the rest of their drivers will race in 2016. 
For more from the drivers at the Goodyear tire test in Las Vegas, head over to NASCAR Happy Hour or NASCAR History - 2003-current on Facebook. I welcome all followers on Twitter as well @Tomzsports.