NASCAR 2015: Who's Improved the Most in the Offseason?
NASCAR, if nothing else, is the best sport at revisiting its rules and structures and rattling its own cage. It could be out of a sense of desperation to keep fans happy or, more importantly, somehow find new ones.
This offseason, a few teams, drivers and, yes, NASCAR itself have made strides to improve the product they offer.
It still feels like Kevin Harvick just crossed the finish line at Homestead, but we’re on the precipice of the 2015 Daytona 500.
With a little offseason left, let’s examine a few of the improvements made in the sport since November.
Joe Gibbs Racing
From a team angle, Joe Gibbs Racing made the biggest improvement by adding Carl Edwards to the stable.
It wasn’t even like JGR let one guy go and replaced him with the backflipping boy wonder. JGR probably felt that in order to go bumper-to-bumper with Hendrick Motorsports, it needed some extra horsepower.
Edwards said on NASCAR.com:
I don't know when Joe Gibbs sleeps. He's into everything. That guy has more energy than… almost as much energy as Jay Glazer. He has a lot of energy. But I'll get a message after I've been asleep. He'll leave a message. It's a 11 o'clock at night, and he's just all amped up, wanting to talk about racing and what's going on.
JGR made the Chase with all three of its driver in 2014, with Denny Hamlin finishing the highest among them in third place. Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth also qualified.
JGR doesn’t have the most glamorous lineup, but if you include Edwards, it had four drivers in the top 10 in the standings, two more than the hated HMS.
NBC in Acquiring Steve Letarte
This story sort of dates back to last offseason, but it bears repeating since the fruits of it bear out now.
In Letarte’s swan song, he won four races, including the Daytona 500, and qualified for the Chase for the third straight year. He turned around a slumping Junior and made NASCAR’s most popular driver one of its best drivers yet again.
It will no doubt hurt Earnhardt to lose someone of Letarte’s experience and talents, but his loss is NBC’s gain. NBC gets the crew chief from the sport’s most visible driver and insights from a 500-winning pit boss.
The tapered spacer may be one of the more controversial rule changes and system adjustments NASCAR has made in quite a while.
The tapered spacer is a plate with four tapered holes that reduce the horsepower of the engines from 850 to 725.
Gene Stefanyshyn, senior vice president of innovation and racing development, told NASCAR.com:
You take the power out, but we're also taking drag off (by trimming the spoiler) to re-balance this whole thing. It's not going to be as dramatic as most people think. We're hoping … it will make the racing better, closer. Our goals are always that, right? To provide better entertainment for our fans.
The idea is that by reducing the overall horsepower, the competition will be tighter. Throw in that there will no longer be any private testing, and the top and the bottom will come back to the middle for increased competition.
In theory, it sounds like a great move. But will it simply mean that the best will still be the best, just three to four miles per hour slower? We’ll see.
Junior Pairing with Greg Ives
Riding the coattails of the tapered spacers is Greg Ives, Earnhardt’s newest crew chief. How does this matter, and why is Ives tied to tapered spacers?
Ives is coming off of being wunderkind Chase Elliott’s crew chief on the circuit formerly known as Nationwide (now Xfinity). The two won the Nationwide Series championship using cars that utilize tapered spacers on their engines.
Earnhardt told NASCAR.com, "The way the rule changes are coming about, that's sort of going into Greg Ives' wheelhouse. He's worked on cars with this type of horsepower over the last couple years. He really understands a little bit about what we're dealing with there."
Though Earnhardt loses Letarte, in some ways, he gets an upgrade in Ives, who just led Elliott to a Nationwide title and is more familiar using this equipment.
This little improvement makes Earnhardt a front-runner to win the Sprint Cup championship.
Pit Road Technology
There’s a new eye in the sky. Actually, there’s close to three dozen eyes, with one HD camera aimed at each pit stall.
Somewhere on site at every track, like a beehive, resides NASCAR officials linked up to two computers watching every move from every pit stop.
The purpose is to ensure that crewmen don’t jump the fence too early while noting the number of tires taken and if gas was added.
NASCAR does say there will be increased transparency and consistency. This benefits everyone. When things are enforced in a uniform manner, teams and fans alike know what’s expected.
The new system was tested, though not implemented, during the final 11 races of the 2014 season. This is a promising improvement for safety, uniformity and transparency. Will it be perfect? No, nothing is perfect coming out of the gate, but these little changes over time make the sport stronger.