Coming into the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season there were some very high expectations among fans, media, and competitors because of a new set of rules that would impact the amount of horsepower produced by the engines and the amount of down force placed on the bodies of the cars. Many seemed to believe that the changes instituted by the sanctioning body would bring about more drafting and pack-type racing as seen on the restrictor plate tracks in Daytona and Talladega. And at least on the start of each race and the restarts following each caution or stage break, that has indeed been true.
However, once a particular green flag run progresses more than a few laps, the cars have tended to sort out and distance themselves from each other, often for long stretches at a time. While the racing has been interesting with close finishes and intriguing story lines, a number of the lead changes recorded so far this season have been the result of green flag pit stop exchanges rather than as the result of on-track racing.
It should be noted that for the most part, 2019 television ratings have improved over those recorded in 2018.
But even with those intriguing story lines and improved TV ratings, a feeling of disappointment, or rather of expectations not being met, has begun to creep in. And that feeling has, at least in part, been brought on by the fact that expectations were set very high leading into this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign.
Each week, well-known racing journalist Jeff Gluck(@Jeff_Gluck on Twitter) conducts a “Was it a good race?” poll. After last Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California the percentages fell on the disappointing side as only 36% of the almost 10,000 respondents answered “Yes” to the question.
It should be noted that after the season-opening Daytona 500, which received an 80% approval rating, the numbers in Gluck’s survey have decreased weekly with the only bump occurring from the Las Vegas and Phoenix races.
As mentioned above, the expectations were set very high, especially after the 2018 All-Star Race held on the 1.5-mile speedway in Charlotte. The lowering of the approval ratings in Gluck’s poll could very well be related to those high expectations.
As a high school Psychology teacher, I spend an entire chapter talking about sensations and perceptions. A perception is the meaning a person attaches to a piece of information they have taken in from their senses such as a sight or a smell. Perceptions can be influenced by a number of factors including moods and expectations. A particular event such as a movie, a concert, or even an auto race could be quite good but if the expectations of the attendees were set extremely high going in, the quite good event may not live up to the expectations.
NASCAR could very well be caught up in this sort of cycle. And the sanctioning body as well as media, competitors, and the fans themselves are likely to blame for that as the word coming out of most of those camps before the season began was that the racing would be markedly different this season as opposed to recent years.
And again, the racing has actually been pretty good so far in 2019 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but there probably wouldn’t be many observers who would call it markedly different from past campaigns. Yes, the starts and restarts have tended to be highly entertaining, but once the field spreads out, we are still seeing very little passing of the leader aside from times in which there are green flag pit stop exchanges.
Some fans coming into the season were under the impression that there would be that Daytona and Talladega element to more races with cars running in large packs and positions be changed on a lap-by-lap basis. It would be virtually impossible without slowing the cars to a virtual crawl to live up to those kinds of expectations, but some had them nonetheless.
So what we have seen this year has been great racing on restarts followed by racing similar to past seasons only at somewhat slower speeds. And a problem with that is, of course, that the sport cannot live off of restarts alone.
The rules now in place were meant to lower horsepower and increase downforce at most tracks, which they have done. The previous administration of NASCAR seemed to be operating under the belief that having all cars run basically the same speed would make for better racing. And while that may keep cars closer together for a few laps, there isn’t going to be much passing with the cars going the same speed.
Many would argue that a package that allowed for higher horsepower and less downforce combined with tires that wear out over the course of a green flag run is the way to go to create more passing. But that isn’t the current package, and as has been stated multiple times already, the racing has not been bad. It just hasn’t lived up to the expectations of some.
To further add to the confusion some may be experiencing is the fact that the type of package seems to change from week to week. Higher downforce and lower horsepower, higher horsepower and lower downforce, lower horsepower and lower downforce switch in and out depending on the size of the track being used each week. And each change has resulted in competitors or media assuring fans that this is the weekend in which the new package will live up to expectations.
But as stated before, apart from the restarts, there hasn’t always seemed to be a lot of difference from last year, or the year before that.
So what is NASCAR to do?
In the opinion of this writer, the sport has endured too many changes as it is. If the racing has indeed been good so far, then let that continue. Over time, the expectations will eventually come into line with reality. Many drivers and teams have stated that the full effect of the changes implemented over the off-season won’t be felt until May or even into the summer.
While there may be a few more weeks of “Was it a good race?” polls with lowered numbers, that will just have to be endured. Perhaps by the second half of the season the fans, media, and competitors will come to realize this is the package in place and that while the racing may not be ideal, it has been good.
Instead of changing the rules yet again, NASCAR would be better off waiting and hoping that the good racing continues, and hopefully even gets better.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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