Driver Paul Menard and crew chief Greg Erwin confer during the NASCAR test Jan. 31 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)
The way Paul Menard started to answer the question – cautiously, with an unsettled tone to his voice and with a pause – you could tell NASCAR’s latest technical specifications wouldn’t have been his first choice for the car he’d like to race in 2019.
But he quickly caught himself. Who really wants to hear complaining from people who make a comfortable living racing a stock car in front of adoring crowds and a national television audience?
“The fans will tell us whether or not we like it,” Menard said.
The 38-year-old Eau Claire native begins his 13th full-time season this weekend with Daytona 500 time trials and the non-points Advance Auto Parts Clash on Sunday, a week ahead of the 500 itself.
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While Menard is starting his second year with Wood Brothers Racing, 2019 brings at least as many unknowns as last season, given Ford’s move from the Fusion to Mustang bodywork – Chevrolet teams struggled last year with a similar switch to the Camaro – and NASCAR rewriting its engine and aerodynamic regulations in pursuit of closer competition.
“The nice thing is we have pretty much the same team intact, we have a year under our belts and we’re going to figure it out together,” Menard said in a telephone interview this week.
Actually, Daytona provides a brief interlude in the most serious figuring. The 500 will be run with a familiar aero package and the use of a restrictor plate to limit airflow to the engine and cut horsepower.
The big change comes in Week 2, when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series moves to Atlanta Motor Speedway. The cars this season will carry larger rear spoilers and front splitters, creating more down force and drag, and for more than half of the races the engines will have lower horsepower (about 550, down from 750) as tapered spacers limit airflow.
All of that is intended to keep more cars closer together for a longer time, facilitating tighter competition and more passing.
It’s not going to result in a complete Daytona- or Talladega-style, full-field draft at, say, Michigan or Charlotte or Atlanta, but sort of a hybrid between that and classic short-track racing. Momentum will be important but handling will too and drivers will have to get off and on the gas pedal.
“What makes you go fast by yourself isn’t going to be what allows you to maneuver and keep wide-open throttle in the car in the pack, so we’ll be learning how much to trim out to go fast by yourself but also how much down force we need for pack racing,” Menard said. “It’s the same for everybody; we’ll just learn as we go.”
Menard took part in a test last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the new configuration, and he saw drivers going four-wide after a restart.
“You’re going to see a lot more packed-up cars, and probably see a lot more accidents, more cars getting torn up, which is the unfortunate part of what we do,” Menard said. “But the racing is going to be tighter.”
NASCAR will have two big-track, low-horsepower packages, one with brake cooling ducting for the flatter tracks and abrasive Atlanta, and another that moves air through the front wheel wells to create a larger wake on the tracks where brakes don’t come into play as much.
For the road courses and the shorter ovals – 14 races in all – teams will have a horsepower level comparable to what they have had. But the additional down force will affect racing on those tracks, as well.
If all goes the way NASCAR officials hope, racing on intermediate tracks will pick up some of the excitement an unpredictability inherent on the superspeedways and some of the close-quarters action of short tracks. If things don’t go as planned, the series could have slower races with more crashes with no appreciable increase in battles for the lead.
Either way, the sport also could end up with confused fans frustrated by yet more changes (following ever-evolving playoffs and the implementation of stage racing in recent years) and manufactured competition.
Menard chooses to be hopeful.
“It’s the cards we’re dealt that we have to go play with, and if your typical race fan doesn’t understand that, I don’t think they need to. If they want to watch good racing, then we’ll put that on,” he said. “We’ll figure out how to work through it.
“There’s some fans that really want to get into it that want to know all the details. They might be a little bit confused initially, but they’ll figure it out.”