CONCORD, N.C. — Steve O’Donnell says he woke up with anticipation on All-Star Saturday morning, hours away from an evening of racing with an experimental NASCAR rules package.
There were no points at stake for the Monster Energy Series, but for O’Donnell and the rest of the competition department down the road in Concord, plenty was riding on the made-for-TV invitational beyond the $1 million payday. The combination of aerodynamic and engine alterations was part of a bold play for fan interest in a showcase event in the sanctioning body’s hub, and Friday rain did NASCAR few favors in offering a preview.
“A lot of prayers this morning, probably,” O’Donnell was able to wise-crack after a largely successful Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. By nightfall, the NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer and his team had reason to smile after an exhibition event with plenty of passing and close-quarters racing on one of the circuit’s most finicky tracks.
“A lot of anticipation for the race because I knew how much work went into it, especially from our team,” said O’Donnell, who made a point to thank those team members individually in his initial remarks. “So was certainly cautiously optimistic, but you never know, all kinds of things to look at. Really just wanted to see it play out. Knew that either way we would have a direction from this. We would know that this is something we want to continue to pursue or we would also know that we collectively tried something and it’s not a direction we want to go.
“I think all in all, was excited at the beginning of the race, honestly was excited throughout the race. I thought every lap had something to watch out there on the track.”
RELATED: All-Star Race results
Competition officials found the ideal petri dish in the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race, working with teams, manufacturers and the speedway’s management to develop a package that traded top-end speed for tighter racing within a pack. Lap times were noticeably slower with drivers only periodically lifting off the throttle, and while outright slingshot passes were difficult to muster, this year’s All-Star Race lapped its predecessors in changes to the running order.
Several statistics were at or near a six-year high, the most telling being green-lap passes, which reached 38 this season compared to 2017’s zero. But O’Donnell measured the race with something more intangible — the vibe he gathered from his perch in race control
“I think no, we’re not high‑fiving because we got to control ourselves up in the booth. I think you judge it by the fans,” O’Donnell said. “I think you look down the last 10 laps, everybody is standing up. Marcus (Smith, SMI president) has a suite next to us. I can say that last year’s All‑Star Race was fairly silent. Don’t know if everybody stood or everybody was even still there, but it was packed. We heard screaming in the suite next to us. People were enthused.”
Though there was plenty of initial applause, O’Donnell and Co. said they would take a measured approach to potentially implementing the rules package — with restrictor plates, air ducts and revised spoilers and splitters — at other intermediate-sized tracks. Saturday night’s assessment was more of a snap analysis for a process that was months in the making, and future packages with an eye toward 2019 would likely take a similar course.
“I would never say never,” O’Donnell said when asked if the package could reappear before season’s end, “but our intent is we’ve talked coming into this, was to try this here, then really take a deep dive into how do we make this the best package possible for 2019 if we liked what we saw. Again, it’s still very early. You all watched the race, we just watched the race as well, so we have to digest a lot of information and see where we go from there.”
For the drivers, Saturday night’s event — which spilled over from a scheduled 80 to 93 laps with Stage 3 overtime — presented a hybrid of restrictor-plate competition commonly seen at Daytona or Talladega with the more traditional racing characteristics of a 1.5-mile track.
“It was a mix of the both,” said fourth-place finisher Denny Hamlin, “Obviously I thought it was a great show and I thought the racing was fun to watch and be a part of. We’ll see where it takes us in the future.”
Said Scott Graves, crew chief for the No. 19 Toyota for runner-up Daniel Suarez: “I think it’s got some positives and you look at it maybe at tracks like this or the more recent repaves — a Michigan or a Kansas — that kind of format. I think the short-track racing we’ve had this year with the regular package has been great, so I don’t think you really need to do anything there. And at an Atlanta-type track where you have so much (tire) fall-off, I don’t know that you need it there. I mean, the races are fun to watch there. But I can see some of these newer tracks where it might be a good idea to try it out at some of them.”
Which led to the question of whether race officials would potentially re-use the package for next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 — a question that O’Donnell fielded with SMI’s Smith grinning while making eye contact from the back of the media center. An encore in eight days for the sport’s longest race of the year seems unrealistic, but O’Donnell said the door was open for change in NASCAR’s long-range plans.
“If this is something the fans liked, hopefully we’ll hear that,” O’Donnell said. We’d continue in that direction. But that’s ultimately how you dial in. If it’s 36 different packages or if it’s three, you want to end up on the right one.
“We believe we can keep it simple with the number of race packages we put together. We want to be as efficient as possible. Ultimately it’s about the fans and putting on the best race we can.”