Aaron Bearden: Kentucky shows NASCAR must keep pushing to improve racing

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.

Aaron Bearden typically writes for KickinTheTires.net. He freelanced for JeffGluck.com this weekend. Follow Aaron on Twitter at @aaronbearden93.

Note: This story has been updated to remove a statistic about lead changes.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Fontana race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Today: Fontana.

Larson no loser

Holy crap, how impressive is Kyle Larson lately?

Sunday really felt like the first of many wins for Larson this season. He’s already the breakout driver of 2017, with finishes of second, second, second and first in the four non-plate races.

You can credit faster cars at Chip Ganassi Racing — and of course, that’s a major part of it — but Larson also isn’t making the type of mistakes that took him out of races earlier in his career. Remember when it seemed like he’d hit the wall at some point every time he had a good car?

Not anymore.

He also seems more willing to try different lines instead of being so committed to the running the wall. Larson made some awesome moves by hooking the bottom of the track during Sunday’s race, and that paid off in a big way at times.

So, about that new package…

I’m officially concerned about the effectiveness of the low-low downforce package.

NASCAR got lucky with late drama at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix that covered up ho-hum races. But Fontana — which got a 90% approval rating in the “Was it a good race?” Twitter poll last year — had expectations to break that trend and provide a great show from start to finish.

Unfortunately, much of the race was rather tame again until Gray Gaulding crashed with 20 laps to go. Then, much like the other non-plate races, a chaotic finish erased all thoughts of the earlier lack of action.

But that trend can’t continue all season. NASCAR wants the action to be compelling throughout the day, lest races turn into the NBA cliche, where only the last five minutes matters.

The new aero package test isn’t passing the eye test as far as compelling races. Why? I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to hear some theories.

Clint Bowyer’s extra effort

In a Saturday roundtable interview with reporters, Bowyer said he had a long phone call with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz on Friday night — something he didn’t typically do in the past.

Then, after finishing third on Sunday, Bowyer revealed he drove to Bugarewicz’s hotel room on Saturday night to pore over data and try to find ideas to fix the car, which didn’t look great in practice.

“I’ve never went to a crew chief’s hotel room,” Bowyer said. “Never done that before.”

It’s clear this opportunity really matters to Bowyer — as it should. At 37, this might be his last, best chance to resurrect his career and get back to the championship-contending driver he’s capable of being.

He’s on the right path. Sunday was his best finish at an intermediate track since July 2013 in Kentucky.  Bowyer now can head to Martinsville — one of his favorite venues — with confidence and momentum.

Weird stats after five races

Two Chevrolet drivers have won races this season — and neither are from Hendrick Motorsports.

The one Toyota winner so far isn’t from Joe Gibbs Racing. And the winner from Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t Kevin Harvick.

So yeah, if you thought Richard Childress Racing would have more wins than Hendrick and Gibbs combined after five races? Well, you’re just lying.

It’s been an odd start to the year. There have been five different winners, but six of the eight active multi-race winners from last season have yet to reach victory lane. That’s a big zero for Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.

Yes, it’s still early, but the regular season is also roughly one-fifth complete. So how much longer is this going to last?

Painful commercials

I was proud of myself for not getting too aggravated with the commercials during Sunday’s race — the first I’d watched from home this season.

They didn’t seem to be as bad as usual. But naturally, I couldn’t make it the whole time without getting irritated.

It remains absolutely maddening to see tweets about a great battle for the lead while we at home are staring at a commercial listing the side effects for a drug named Symbicort.

By the way, some of those side effects include headaches, changes in your voice, mood changes and shaking — which coincidentally also describe the effects on me when there are too many commercials during green-flag racing.

Honestly, NOTHING about the current state of NASCAR makes me angrier or more frustrated than the commercials. It’s no wonder TV ratings are in the toilet.

No other major sport disrespects its fans like this. Even soccer figures out a way to show games — including World Cup games! — without commercial interruption (except for halftime). Most sports fans wouldn’t tolerate a broadcaster cutting away from live game action, but for some reason, NASCAR fans are just expected to shut up and deal with it.

If the TV networks need money that badly, give us a pay-per-view option with an ad-free broadcast. Would you pay $10 for a race with no ads? Personally, I would.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Las Vegas race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. Typically, this will be posted as soon as possible after the race — but my site has been crashing for the past couple days, so I was unable to post anything new! My apologies for the delay.

Get ready for the mixed messages

It will be fascinating to see how NASCAR reacts to the Kyle Busch/Joey Logano incident.

In one respect, NASCAR probably has to give Busch a slap on the wrist (probation or small fine) to say, “Hey dude, you can’t go up to someone and just punch them.”

But on the other hand, this is exactly what NASCAR wants! You know NASCAR is going to use it in all sorts of promotional aspects heading into Phoenix and beyond, so it’s hypocritical to penalize Busch while also profiting from it.

That’s been how NASCAR has operated for years, of course, dating back to the 1979 Daytona 500 (the drivers were fined for that famous fight, even though it put NASCAR on the map).

With the addition of Monster Energy, though — which has openly advocated for drivers to mix it up — can NASCAR really fine Busch with a straight face?

If so, he shouldn’t pay it.

Finish saves a ho-hum race

The sun was pouring into the press box during the first stage, and — combined with a food coma from lunch and the expiration of my morning coffee buzz — I almost started to nod off.

You can yell at FOX all you want (There’s great racing through the field, they’re just not showing it!), but the truth is the entire field was running single file for a long stretch in both of the early stages.

At one point, a reporter (who shall remain nameless) shouted, “Whoa!” We scanned the track for trouble, didn’t see anything, then turned to the reporter with puzzled expressions.

What happened?

“A pass in the top 12!” he said.

Though the crazy finish with Brad Keselowski’s problems and the post-race fight salvaged the day, there are now legitimate concerns about the racing following the first two 1.5-mile tracks of the season. Both Atlanta and Vegas weren’t as exciting as their 2016 editions — especially Atlanta — and it makes you wonder what’s up with the much-anticipated lower downforce package.

Phoenix probably isn’t going to be an amazing race — it’s just not the most action-packed track after restarts — but Fontana should be, since it’s become one of the best circuits. If not, there will be much head-scratching going on within the industry.

Martin Truex Jr. closes it out

Every time I thought about the new points system heading into the season, I thought of Martin Truex Jr. He was so dominant at times last year, and then he got into the Chase and — well, you know what happened. But if he had the playoff points under the current system, he might have made it to Homestead.

So with that in mind, it was interesting to see Truex get the maximum seven playoff points (which, remember, are bonus points that carry over all the way through Phoenix). Prior to this system, a win was only worth three bonus points — and those could only be used in the first round.

“That really would have helped us last year,” Truex said. “We ran so good and led so many races, and always didn’t get the finish we probably deserved or thought we should have gotten, and so it’s cool to get rewarded for running good and pushing hard and being up at the front of the pack more consistently than other guys.”

With one great race, Truex now has more bonus/playoff points than he’d have for two wins last year. That’s really going to add up for some of the top drivers, and it’s going to make the chances of some fluke elimination in the early rounds much less likely.

Kyle Larson is having a fantastic start

Don’t sleep on Larson this year — and I’m not just talking wins, but the championship.

Dating back to the Phoenix race last fall, Larson has finished third, second at Homestead, 12th at Daytona, second at Atlanta and now second at Las Vegas.

“Super happy with how our season has gotten started,” he said. “Way better than where I’ve ever started a season.”

It seems like things are really clicking for Larson, who isn’t taking himself out of races with some of the mistakes he made in the first couple seasons.

When you combine Larson’s results with consecutive top-10s for Jamie McMurray, there’s a lot to like about Chip Ganassi Racing right now. Both cars appear to have the speed to be contenders in many weeks this season.

Keselowski the early title favorite

I just said not to sleep on Larson (see above) for the championship, but the favorite at the moment has to be Keselowski.

He won Atlanta despite having to make an untimely pit stop with a loose wheel, then won the pole for Las Vegas and was certainly either the best car (he was about to win, after all) or the second-best all day.

Keselowski said he didn’t know what happened to his car in the last couple laps, when he suddenly lost power (and if he did know, he was keeping it close to the vest). But either way, the overall speed is there and Team Penske seems to be extremely strong (Keselowski’s teammate Logano is the only driver with top-10 finishes in all three races).

It’s still very early, of course, and many things can and will change in the coming weeks. But if you’re looking for the NASCAR equivalent of a 25-day weather forecast, it’s looking bright for Keselowski.