By Aaron Bearden
Has the time come for NASCAR to design a new car for Cup Series competition?
Brad Keselowski certainly thinks so. And while that may be unlikely in the immediate future, races like Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway prove there’s at least still work to be done on the current model.
“It is a poorly designed race car and it makes racing on tracks like this very difficult to put on the show we want to put on for our fans,” Keselowski said after a Lap 87 crash. “You do what you can to gouge and claw on the restarts and get everything you can get. You have to put yourself in bad situations to do that and that is where we were. If you don’t make those moves on the restarts, then you run in the back.”
It’s crazy how quickly things change.
Two years ago, Keselowski was one of a host of drivers praising NASCAR after a test of a new low-downforce package yielded an exciting show on the 1.5-mile oval.
“This is what race car driving’s all about,” Denny Hamlin said after that 2015 race. “And 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 it build the fastest cars in the shop.”
“I could actually drive the car, I was steering and sliding, I about wrecked a few times,” Carl Edwards said then. “You know, I felt like I was doing something, not just sitting in line. So I was really excited about the racing.”
Edwards was one of the most vocal drivers for taking away downforce to put control in the drivers’ hands when he competed. Given that fact, he likely didn’t miss NASCAR’s latest foray in the Bluegrass State.
There’s no real way around it: Saturday’s 400-mile race was mostly a snoozer, even after the facility used the “Tire Dragon” to attempt to enhance the middle lane.
There were occasional bursts of excitement, namely during the race’s start and eight subsequent restarts, which spawned three and four-wide battles and a handful of crashes that eliminated Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and others.
But during the part of the race that should matter most — green-flag racing — excitement was difficult to find.
Sure, fast cars could rise to the top. Kyle Larson proved that in driving through the field from the rear twice after missing qualifying and suffering a pit road speeding penalty, and race winner Truex diced through lapped traffic with ease through the night.
But the average car was stuck.
Clint Bowyer spotter Brett Griffin was one of the first to chime in on the passing difficulty throughout the night, noting that gaps of three-to-four car lengths were proving difficult for his driver and others to overcome early in the night due to aerodynamic issues, and suggesting that restarts would determine the race.
There were only four leaders throughout the night, and only two (Truex and Kyle Busch) who led for any significant period of time. Truex drove awaty over a lengthy late run, leading his closest competitors by 16.7 seconds before a late caution bunched up the field.
But after staying out during a subsequent round of pit stops, Truex appeared to be a sitting duck, poised to let another win slip away. When he took off on the race’s final restart, though, the clean air proved enough for the Furniture Row Racing star to drive off and secure the victory.
Drivers throughout the pack complained of handling issues back in the pack. Busch noted a change in significant change in handling once he lost clean air to a round of pit stops, as did Matt Kenseth and others.
Part of Saturday’s issues can be attributed to the 1.5-mile oval’s repave, its second in as many years after a few observed problems required a repeat overhaul following the Xfinity Series’ playoff opener in 2016.
“It’s just really lane sensitive, so you have to be right on the bottom is pretty much the quickest way,” Kasey Kahne said. “So the restarts are all you’ve got. I mean, it’s Kentucky. It was like this last year if I remember.”
Those struggles were expected — repaves never produce the best races in NASCAR. But to use them as an overarching excuse and move on unabated does a disservice to Keselowski’s observation.
To its credit, NASCAR’s move to continue lowering downforce in recent seasons has paid off, at least statistically. A look at loop data shows a significant increase in quality passes this season — 1,615 per race this season entering Kentucky, up from an average of 1,230 per race over the course of last year.
What really matters to most, including the average fan, is the eye test — whether a race looks exciting on television or in person. This is difficult to measure, sure, but it’s hard to find many times that Saturday’s race filled fans with excitement.
Not every race can be a barn-burner. Sometimes, dominant nights like Truex’s on Saturday happen. But in those circumstances, there needs to be something exciting to keep fans watching.
Save for Larson’s early drive through the field, there wasn’t much of that to be found in Kentucky.
So, what can be done?
Keselowski recommended a new car design.
“It is time for the sport to design a new car that is worthy of where this sport deserves to be and the show it deserves to put on for its fans,” Keselowski said.
Given that the current Gen 6 car in only in its fourth year of use, the move to a whole new car seems hasty. But it does foster thoughts about how the current car can be improved.
Perhaps the cars need lifted up off the ground — as has been the request from Dale Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski and others whenever a car spins through the infield grass. More downforce could be taken away, or even added if there are circumstances where it would prove beneficial.
The science behind finding the perfect setup is difficult, but there are a host of potential options at NASCAR’s disposal.
The sanctioning body has worked tirelessly to improve its on-track product in recent years. NASCAR has tested and implemented both a low-downforce and lower-downforce package in recent years, while also attempting things such as the high-drag package seen at IMS and Michigan International Speedway in 2015.
Races like Kentucky show NASCAR can’t stop now. That same willingness to innovate and improve is what the sport needs to deliver the weekly product drivers and fans deserve.
Note: This story has been updated to remove a statistic about lead changes.