As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series approaches the halfway mark of the 2019 season, there have been some very exciting and interesting races while there have also been several events that have not exactly been riveting. And unfortunately for both NASCAR and its fans, the more recent races to have been run are among those considered to be some of the least interesting of the year.
Using reporter Jeff Gluck’s(@Jeff_Gluck on Twitter) “Was it a good race?” poll as a guide, races at Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma(the three most recent events) have been counted among the worst of the season with 50% or fewer of those who responded to Gluck’s Twitter-based polls answering the question in the affirmative.
With new aerodynamic and engine regulations having been put in place during the off-season between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, it would seem appropriate to ask if that new package put in place by the sanctioning body has anything to do with the lack of enthusiasm for the past three MENCS races. It is worth noting that those three races have been conducted on very different types of tracks with Michigan fitting into the 1.5-2 mile “cookie cutter” category, Sonoma being a road course, and Pocono being a 2.5-mile triangle with varying degrees of banking in its three very distinct turns.
But along with the aerodynamic and horsepower changes, there is also the likelihood that the overwhelming domination of two organizations has played a part in the decline in approval for, and the predictability of, the races mentioned above.
After the 16 MENCS races held so far in 2019, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have scored 15 wins. These two companies with a total of seven cars on track for each race have led two-thirds of all the laps completed to this point in the season and hold six of the top-10 positions in the current standings including four of the top-5 in those points totals.
Hendrick Motorsports, which at one time was the unquestioned leader in NASCAR’s Cup Series, has only managed one race win to date and that was Chase Elliott’s triumph at the Talladega Super Speedway. Furthermore, Stewart-Haas Racing, which during the first half of 2018 was the dominate player at the sport’s top level, has led laps and been in position to win races but has yet to tally in the victory column. Teams such as Richard Childress Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing may have had brief flashes of hope but have ultimately failed to muster any series challenges to the two top players.
So has NASCAR’s current rules package brought about what many fans have perceived to be less-than-exciting racing of late or is it simply the dominance of two organizations that is so completely throttling the competition that it causes some individual events to be lacking in thrill factor?
Like many questions of this nature, the answer likely lies somewhere in between. No doubt the reason for the dominance of JGR and Penske comes from the fact that those two companies did a better job leading into the current campaign of understanding what their cars and drivers would need to race up front and win. The others may very well have put in the hours but their calculations must have been off from the beginning and now they are trying to play catch-up.
Some races in the 2019 season have been quite good. Three events(All-Star Race, Talladega & Kansas) have broken the 90% approval barrier in Gluck’s poll. On the other side of that, one-third of this year’s races have ranked at 50% or less in ‘The Athletic’ writer’s surveys with two events(The Clash and Pocono) not even receiving 30% approval from respondents.
But even with that, television ratings for NASCAR saw an uptick over previous years during the time in which Fox Sports covered the sport in 2019. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues through the NBC Sports phase of coverage if the current trend of two-team dominance persists.
Many have argued that instead of reducing horsepower and increasing aerodynamic drag on the cars, as NASCAR did this past off-season, that the opposite should have been done. Rather than drivers basically roaring around most speedways wide open in cars virtually stuck to the racing surface, racers should have more power and less grip which would cause them to lift off of the accelerator more often and would bring handling and driving ability more into play.
But that is not the path the leaders of the sport opted for. And with that being the case, the combination of two organizations totally dominating the races and a package that does not seem to promote cars slipping and sliding on the track has led to results that are becoming highly predictable and in some cases even boring.
So, either the other teams must adapt and improve or continue to get buried. Or, NASCAR must consider another change if it wants to induce greater competition.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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