Analysis: NASCAR’s intermediate product will look drastically different in 2019

It’s probably way too early to reach any sort of conclusion, but …

The first real test for the new-look Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rules package took place on Thursday afternoon at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and it definitely delivered on what the sanctioning body promised it would look like.

NASCAR has increased downforce on the cars at the highest level of the sport while drastically reducing horsepower on tracks 1.5 miles or longer to create a high drag drafting product.

And at least on Thursday, during a test that featured one car from every organization, NASCAR succeeded in closing the gap between the entire field. It wasn’t quite pack racing, especially during the tail-end of each 25-lap session, but cars were definitely closer together.

And how you feel about the current direction probably depends on what you seek from your motorsports experience in general.

Do you want the NASCAR Cup Series to be the most challenging and grueling form of stock car racing or do you want it to be the most entertaining?

Kyle Busch, the 2015 Cup Series champion says NASCAR may have sacrificed sporting integrity in the name of entertainment.

“We’ve taken the driver’s skill away from the drivers in this package,” Busch said in a Jeff Gluck tweet. “Anybody can go out there and run around there and go wide open. It’s a lot more of a mental game, more of a chess match, thinking how you make moves and how daring you can be.”

The giant Cup Series spoiler, now 8-inches-by-61-inches, punches such a massive void behind a trailing car. As was the case during the 2018 All-Star Race, which began this journey in earnest, the leader can’t check out to a huge lead, but it’s seemingly just as difficult to pass him too.

Is that because the leader has the best car with an elite driver or because it still generates that same aero push that has impeded entertainment at the highest levels of the sport?

At the same time, the first handful of cars punch such a huge hole in the air, that the middle of the pack can easily go three-and-four wide due to what amounts to a slipstream effect. But is three-and-four-wide just as thrilling as it was before now that drivers are flat footing it around Vegas in what is essentially a slot car? What makes side-by-side racing so exciting is the belief that drivers are on the ragged edge, perpetually on the verge on sliding into the driver next to them. This doesn’t appear to be the same kind of side-by-side racing that we’ve known from the past.

However, Austin Dillon says he and his peers still have to drive the cars. Then there’s two-race Cup winner David Ragan who told me that driver challenge isn’t what makes the Cup Series, or any discipline the best within a given motorsport.

“Matt- you love super late model racing don’t you. Those cars are super easy to drive. Soft tires, tons of downforce, a lot of LS weight. If we ranked series by how difficult the car is to drive….. Then the Legends cars series would be the premier series in the country!”

That wasn’t exactly a denial that the cars are now easier to drive than ever before.

So is this a sport or a theatrical performance? Are these the best stock car drivers in the country or the most affluent, who were able to afford buying a ride at the highest level? Is this an overreaction? And if this is indeed the future of stock car racing, what comes next?

Brad Keselowski said this last summer when asked about the possibility of NASCAR making the sport to simplified in the name of entertainment.

“I think a lot of the drivers in this sport are in a position where they chose Cup racing because of the demands that the cars take to drive,” Keselowski said. “I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers.

“I think if you put a package like this out there, like we had at the All-Star race on a consistent basis, that the best drivers in the world will no longer go to NASCAR. They will pick a different sport. That won’t happen overnight. It would happen over time and be a tragedy to the sport. They want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance, and there is no doubt that the driver makes less of a difference with that rules package.”

The first step was taken on Thursday to finding out if that’s true.

From the moment a driver first steps into a kart or quarter midget, they are tasked with driving as deep into a corner as humanly possible before having to lift.Some would argue that is the very …

Regardless, NASCAR is all-in on this direction. The executives down in Daytona Beach and Charlotte were all in when they went the polar opposite direction in 2015 with drastically reduced downforce, too.

NASCAR felt that a more challenging race car, one in which driver feedback mattered more than in recent years, would make the sport more compelling.

Television ratings have continued to decline, attendance is in a 15-year rut, and the sport appears to have reverted back into a niche sport, no different than the 1990s before the FOX-driven internet bubble boosted the sport into the mainstream.

On the eve of NASCAR perhaps taking a drastic swing at the national touring schedule, and perhaps ditching some of the intermediate tracks that continue to alienate fans more than anything else, consider the 2019 rules package the sanctioning body’s last ditch effort to maintain the status quo.

And at first glance, they liked it.

“We’re encouraged by what we saw on the track,” NASCAR vice president John Probst said during the webcast of the first testing session. “But by no means, we’ve all done this long enough, we’re not going to sit here and declare victory or anything. We know that teams are going to keep massaging on this package and we’ve just got to stay with them to make sure that we put on some really exciting races for our fans.”

But again, it’s too early to declare anything definitive.