Successful Xfinity Series race at Indy provides glimpse of the future

No matter what you think of NASCAR’s decision to go with an experimental rules package in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or the merits of such a move, let’s start with the facts.

— There were a race record 16 lead changes, nearly doubling the previous race record of nine. That’s a remarkable number for the Brickyard, which has had 16 or fewer lead changes in 12 of the 23 Cup Series races run here!

— A race record eight different drivers led laps (two more than the previous mark). By comparison, last year’s Brickyard 400 — again, a race that was 100 miles longer — had just three different leaders.

— The margin of victory was just 0.108 second, which was obviously the closest.

So there are the facts. Did those stats — along with the eye test — make for a good race?

Well, as of the time of this post, 83 percent of people in a quick Twitter poll said “Yes.”

I agree. It wasn’t just a better race than in the past, but it was a good race — and I wasn’t very optimistic that would be the case, even with the rule changes in place.

After all, how many times has NASCAR tried something with high hopes (just look at the PJ1 at New Hampshire last week) only to see the race result in somewhat of a letdown?

This time, NASCAR’s extensive research and development work paid off with a concept that seemed to click. It would be shocking if officials didn’t try this idea in the Cup Series sometime in the next year — not just at Indy, but places like Pocono or Michigan.

Was it perfect? No, because it achieved only part of the goal. Slowing the cars kept the race close because the leader could not get away, but passing still seemed like a challenge.

Erik Jones, for example, told me he could easily stay with race leader Kyle Busch while running second — but there was nothing he could do to pass, even if he’d wanted to.

That said, Jones said the package was a positive move overall; it just needs some tweaks, he said.

“A lot of times, these cars are just going too fast,” Jones said. “You go to your local short track and the best race of the weekend is the street stocks or vintage cars, because they’re going so slow that they can go everywhere. They can go all over the racetrack.

“We were definitely a step towards that. You could even see people make passes on the outside, which at Indy is pretty unheard of.”

The whole thing is a bit of an odd concept at Indianapolis, which has rewarded pure speed ever since NASCAR has been racing here. But Saturday’s race had more of a Daytona or Talladega feel, where the leader was punished by getting too far ahead — allowing competitors to catch up in the draft.

Some fans were upset about the concept of artificially bunching the field. It also didn’t sit well with Kyle Busch, who was feeling salty after seeing his chance at a fifth straight Brickyard win disappear.

Busch told me the package was no good and said he would “definitely” be opposed to seeing it tried in the Cup Series.

“They wanted to slow down the fastest guy here so the rest of the field could keep up, and they did,” he said.

But what if there were some tweaks made that perhaps allowed for more passing? Would he be open to the idea then?

“There’s great ideas everywhere,” he responded while walking away.

Xfinity regular Brennan Poole, who finished seventh, disagreed with Busch’s comments. He said there were a couple small changes NASCAR could make to increase passing opportunities, yes; but overall, Poole had no problems with the fairness of the rules.

“I mean, that’s just part of racing,” he said. “It’s the same way at Daytona and Talladega. This package keeps everybody together, but you’ve just got to work a little harder for it.

“It puts on a better fan show for the fans. When there’s more passing and swapping for the lead and everyone fighting, it’s better to watch. I think it was good.”

And if you’re looking for a hint from NASCAR whether a similar package might be used in future races, Steve O’Donnell certainly gave all indications the sanctioning body viewed Saturday’s experiment with a smile.

“I think it passed the eye test,” he told reporters. “Some races, you’re going 200 (mph). Some, you’re down in the 100s on a road course. What at the end of the day matters is how many lead changes did we have and was it competitive throughout. And we thought it was today.”

 

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell on life after Dale Jr.

One of the hot topics in the wake of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement announcement has been: Is NASCAR in trouble?

It’s a fair question, because the up-and-coming drivers don’t seem to have the same sort of big, magnetic personalities drivers like Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon had.

There are a lot of opinions on this, but a very important one comes from NASCAR itself. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and the guy who basically runs the show these days, attended Tuesday’s news conference and answered a few questions afterward, saying he was optimistic about the future of the sport.

Among his answers:

 

— The current crop of young drivers do have personalities that will attract fans, O’Donnell believes, but “they’ve got to win” more often in order for fans and media to recognize that.

“People like winners,” he said. “We’ve taken some steps in the Xfinity Series to move out some of the Cup drivers. The reason for that is we want drivers exposed to winning — (then) they’re interviewed more, people get to see their personalities.”

O’Donnell said there’s “no doubt” the drivers’ personalities will be exposed as they start to have more success.

— It’s one thing for NASCAR to be more involved with developing personalities and scheduling TV show appearances or similar opportunities, but there’s only so much the sanctioning body can do. At some point, O’Donnell said, the drivers have to step up and “take those personalities outside the sport.”

“It’s important for us to work together, but it’s also on the drivers,” he said. “They’ve got to want to do some of these things outside of the sport to help grow the sport as well.”

— O’Donnell is comforted by the fact Earnhardt isn’t going away and wants to remain part of the sport. He believes Earnhardt can continue to help NASCAR develop the young drivers’ personalities, both as an Xfinity Series team owner and other ways that haven’t yet come to light.

In addition, O’Donnell feels Earnhardt will continue to give feedback on NASCAR’s direction (as Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon have in retirement).

“He’s not hesitant to send you a message every day on, ‘Here’s what I thought about the race’ or ‘Here’s some ideas you all need to explore,'” O’Donnell said. “He cares about the long-term health of the sport. And I think the other drivers he’s interacted with, especially the younger drivers, see that and know that’s important going forward.”

Things we learned from NASCAR meeting with Kyle Busch, Joey Logano

Kyle Busch and Joey Logano met briefly in the NASCAR hauler prior to practice Friday at Phoenix International Raceway. Each driver emerged separately — followed by NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell.

Here’s one thing we learned from each participant:

O’DONNELL

Drivers can get physical on pit road, but they’d better not use their cars to settle any beefs.

“We’re very clear that we’re not going to allow a car to be used as a weapon,” O’Donnell said. “We didn’t see that in this case. We looked at this as good, hard racing. That’s when we will react — if there’s an intentional something that happens on the racetrack, we’ll have to react.”

LOGANO

The Team Penske driver brought data from the car with him — something he said Busch asked for — as evidence he didn’t do it on purpose (data could include steering inputs, for example).

“I was able to show him that and it was pretty clear, in my opinion, what happened,” Logano said. ” I hope he was able to see that and know I was sincere about it.

“The only thing I can do at this point was to plead my case and say, ‘Hey, it was an honest mistake, it was hard racing at the end.'”

Logano said it “always helps to talk face-to-face” — something he didn’t do in the past, notably with Matt Kenseth prior to the veteran taking revenge on him at Martinsville.

BUSCH

Everything is great.

“Everything is great,” Busch said. “Everything is great. … Everything is great. … Everything is great.”