SPARTA, Ky. — Column by Race Chaser Online Mid-South Correspondent Brandon Schmidt — NASCAR photo —
All the way back in August of 2014, drivers said they wanted a low downforce setup and a soft tire.
Finally, on Saturday night, NASCAR delivered that request.
The Sprint Cup Series debuted the new downforce package at Kentucky Speedway, one of the bumpiest and most aggressive surfaces on NASCAR’s schedule, featuring the most aggressive change in aerodynamics we’ve seen in years.
But was all the change worth it? Was it successful?
I say absolutely.
Stop and think about what we saw. Two and three-wide racing throughout the field, almost all night long. A three-wide battle for the lead between Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (who went on to win the race), Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards at one point. And ultimately, a slice-and-dice, back-and-forth fight for the win between Busch and Joey Logano with 20 laps to go.
What’s not to like?
The changes were a huge step forward for NASCAR’s premier series and its competition level. So much so that drivers have already been asking, why stop after Kentucky?
Carl Edwards has been amongst the most avid supporters of this new package.
“I cannot say enough positive things about this direction NASCAR is going with less downforce,” said Edwards after the event. “If you give Goodyear a little bit of time to work on a tire, take away another 700 (to) 1,000 pounds of downforce, we’re going to be racing. I felt like a race car driver.”
And yet, while Edwards praised NASCAR for this change, it wasn’t the original route NASCAR was going to take for the changes to the aeropackage.
But numbers don’t lie.
Lead changes were up for Kentucky Speedway from a mere 10 green flag lead changes to 22 green flag lead changes, which is exactly what NASCAR wanted. More than two thousand position changes throughout the whole field compared 1,147 total position changes last year at Kentucky. These numbers show the improvement from last years package to this low downforce package.
Drivers loved this package, feeling as though it put them back behind the wheel of the race car. The numbers loved this package too, showing that it increases the overall competition level for viewers.
Another thing we hadn’t seen in a long time was drivers being able to run the car hard to make it back to the front after problems. Hamlin and Brad Keselowski were two drivers that drove from the back to the lead, ultimately finishing in the top six.
“I passed a ton of cars,” said Hamlin. “I blew a right front from abusing it, but that’s what this package is supposed to do. You overdrive the car, you pay the price. So, this is what race car driving’s all about. I feel like now it’s back in the driver and crew chief’s hands to get their car handling like it’s supposed to. Not just an arms race of who [can] build the fastest car in the shop.”
While this leap in changes was a huge gamble, some of the changes were incomplete. Goodyear only got wind of the changes a few weeks before the Kentucky race, making it difficult for them to make a new tire in time to compensate for the loss of grip. Edwards’ comments shined some light on this aspect, and the question now becomes: Can Goodyear make a new (softer?) tire that gives more grip early in the run, before majorly falling off in grip later on in the run?
Keep in mind, Kentucky was the tip of the iceberg for NASCAR. Michigan and Indianapolis are going to be the next tracks to have some major changes in aero — with a high-drag package coming into play for those events designed to increase the slipstream effect, tighten up the pack and create a more draft-driven style of racing at those tracks.
The comments made regarding the package were many and powerful, and hopefully they made a difference in the minds of those pulling the strings in Daytona Beach. Drivers and fans, newcomers and analysts of the sport for many years all seemed to love this change for NASCAR — saying it was the best race on a 1.5-mile track in as many years as they could remember.
Statistics wise, popularity wise, this seemed to be a huge success for NASCAR.
“What I saw Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway was probably the best race on an intermediate track I have watched in a while,” said FOX Sports NASCAR analyst Larry McReynolds.
I couldn’t agree more.
But, this isn’t the end. We have to move forward from this and keep building on the successful platform that this package provides. NASCAR has a chance to turn this success into a new era of furious competition for the sport.
Now it’s time to see if they follow through with the swing.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.