NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell: 'We like what we're seeing from the 2019 package'
It’s still early in the season but NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell likes what he is seeing from the new high downforce, low horsepower competition package in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season.
Born partly from desire and partly from necessity, the new formula has been a polarizing topic all season.
On one hand, NASCAR has long worked to address growing disinterest in the 1.5-mile race tracks that comprise a majority of the schedule. On the other, low horsepower seems to be a request of prospective new manufacturers as NASCAR nears a new engine platform for 2022 and beyond.
Thus, for 2019, NASCAR crafted a high downforce, high drag rules package that also limited horsepower to 550 via a tapered spacer for tracks larger than 1.3 miles but not including Daytona and Talladega. The shorter tracks also feature the 8-inch by 61-inch spoiler and larger spoiler with a two-inch overhang but retains the 750-horsepower target.
The larger tracks also make use of an aero duct system, that replaces brake cooling ducts, that dumps air through the engine compartment and to the sides of the car instead of onto the brakes.
The results at Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway have largely depended on an observer’s point of view or product preference.
Restarts have been a little more dramatic this season with cars unable to break apart until the tires start to degrade, at which point passing also becomes more challenging with the dirty air creating a bigger challenge than most anticipated during the off-season.
The package hasn’t produced pack racing like some anticipated, but it hasn’t quite produced a product that is dramatically different than what has come before. While passing statistics are up, those results are largely attributed to the lack of cautions and resulting green flag pit stops this season.
While cautions have steadily decreased over the past half-decade, cars with so little power and so much downforce has made them even more stable.
On short tracks, drivers are expressing frustration with aerodynamic resistance more than in recent memory.
The race at Bristol Motor Speedway was the best race of the year thus far, the same could also have been said about Thunder Valley at the same time last year.
The races at Martinsville and Richmond saw decreases in passing, especially at the latter as cars visually struggled in the wake behind a leading car. On the positive side, a slower car holding up faster cars have brought more cars into the picture with the leader, a stated goal of NASCAR officials at the start of the season.
That was true at Richmond and it was true at Las Vegas when Kurt Busch led over 20 laps after choosing not to pit for tires, holding off those with tires for longer than he would have under the previous package.
In an interview with NASCAR.com, O’Donnell says the package is meeting expectation through the first third of the regular season.
"All in all, you look at something from an eye test standpoint and then you say, 'directionally, it's pretty good,' and then you look at the facts and you hope those match up," O'Donnell said. "What we've seen really for each one of our races is a much better product on the track. When you look at green flag lead changes, I think we've seen 44 or 45 percent increase, which is tremendous, so directionally we like what we're seeing with the competition on the track."
O'Donnell was most proud of the Bristol race, as he conceded fears that the new package might not be compatible on short tracks, something that still might be valid following the races at Martinsville and Richmond.
"You look at two things, first like Bristol, unbelievable race on the short track," he said. "Candidly, that was a little bit of a concern for us since we put this together for the intermediates.
"We hoped it would deliver on the short tracks and Bristol checked that box. Las Vegas, the first true test of the package was great and as you went from Texas from there, teams had a chance to catch up after the west coast swing like we'll see here to make adjustments, so I think we'll see more competitive teams also."
Parity has also been a problem through the first two races as only Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing teams have won races. Kyle Busch has won thrice, Denny Hamlin twice, Martin Truex once, Brad Keselowski twice and Joey Logano once.
It’s the first time in the Modern Era that teams from two organizations have won the first nine races.
O’Donnell said that is the result of a new package and that NASCAR expects more parity as teams work with it throughout the season.
"I think from our perspective, we hope to see a lot more (winners,)" he said. "When you see any new rules package, historically, you see only one or two teams hit on it out of the gate, which we've seen with Gibbs and Penske certainly. We're starting to see more teams knock on the door."