Race Weekend Central

The Great Debate

As the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season begins to unfold, it’s clear that the new low downforce rules package is a rousing success fully capable of saving America’s most popular form of motorsports.

Or is it?

It depends on where you get your information.

According to Mike Cranston of the Associated Press, last Sunday’s Good Sam 500 at Phoenix was proof positive that the new configuration is revolutionizing NASCAR. In his article about Sunday’s “overtime” photo finish, Cranston stated that the event marked “another success for NASCAR’s new downforce and aerodynamic packages. Used for the first time on a mile-track, it helped produce plenty of passing and only a handful of tire issues on long green-flag runs.”

Race winner (and perennial Phoenix favorite) Kevin Harvick led 139 of the race’s 313 laps, according to NASCAR statistics. That figures out to Harvick leading about 44% of the event. Despite the .010 margin of victory for the No. 4 Chevrolet (the second such finish we’ve seen thus far in 2016), Sunday’s race had only four different drivers at the front of the field.

So does that constitute good racing? Are photo finishes equal to 312 earlier laps of dominance shared among four teams? If the new rules package makes for more competition and better racing, why, then, are we seeing the same old names in the same old finishing positions?

Kevin Harvick has four top-tens and a win. Kyle Busch has four top-fives. Brother Kurt has four top-tens. The usual suspects sit atop the current Cup standings, with Austin Dillon being the only fresh face among the top-ten in points. Granted, we’ve seen some solid runs from rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, but is that because of the new low downforce car, or their impressive gene pools and youthful talent?

Some analysts saw the race a bit differently.

Like Mike Hembree. In a piece he wrote for USA Today, Hembree suggested that last weekend’s Cup race at Phoenix “was not a grand day for the debut of NASCAR’s low-downforce aero package at a relatively flat track. Only three drivers — Kyle Busch, Edwards and Earnhardt — led laps in the first half of the race.”

One idea here is certain: anyone and everyone (including me) can and will have a valid opinion regarding the low downforce package. Not that the new configuration is bad, but maybe it’s not conducive to lots of passing at the front. While battles mid-pack appear to be fast and furious and numerous, fans seeking record-numbers of lead changes should not – for now, at least – expect too much in that regard.

Sounds like the situation we had that led to the new rules package in the first place….

If blown tires and bent sheet metal make for good racing, Phoenix treated fans to plenty. There was no need to worry about long green flag runs like we saw at Atlanta, either, since brake heat from negotiating Phoenix’s flat layout led to several failures among a handful of potential challengers like Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, and Ryan Newman. Cautions allowed teams the chance to work on subpar cars, while bringing pit strategy into the mix as the laps wound down.

Ultimately, track position trumped fresh right-side tires during the final yellow flag for Kahne’s hard slap against the wall. Carl Edwards may have had two new Goodyears and a faster Toyota, but Kevin Harvick had a better line heading into the final corner.

Suddenly the premier series in NASCAR resembles Saturday night short track racing, the kind of competition where a gutsy driver with worn tires and a dream can slip and slide to victory.

And complaints in the garage area, at least from what I hear, have been few.

So, once again, how does NASCAR Nation define “good racing”?

Maybe the larger question is: is there really one attribute we can definitively label as “good racing”? Follow Twitter activity during and after races, and you’ll see all kinds of reasoning as to what made a particular race “good” or not.

Good racing, like beauty, is truly in the eye of the beholder.

And now, it’s off to California for Round Five of this debate….

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