The push and pull of modern stock car racing were on full display Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, only a few laps from the automotive motherland of Detroit.
The appearance of a new aerodynamic/engine package at Charlotte Motor Speedway last month created a “be careful what you wish for” scenario for NASCAR officials. The new package was used on an experimental basis in the All-Star Race, and the results generally were positive — so good, in fact, that many fans began pleading for its immediate use in point races at intermediate tracks.
NASCAR wisely sent it to committee for more study, strongly hinting that the changes might be used later in the season with an eye toward more dramatic change for 2019.
The racing in the All-Star event was better largely because engine restrictor plates cut speeds by about 15 miles per hour and bunched the cars in packs, essentially preventing one or two drivers from racing away from the field, as Kyle Busch did at Charlotte the following week in breezing to a win in the Coca-Cola 600.
The All-Star competition spurred a certain level of excitement within the sport. After years of intermediate-track racing that often prompted more naps than energy among fans, seeing much of the field in close quarters for lap after lap was a Christmas-morning-like surprise.
As in so many cases, however, what is best for fans isn’t necessarily best for drivers. Some drivers begrudgingly supported the change, but the undercurrent in the garage was more about what could be an uncertain future if the new approach spread.
While understanding that good competition is necessary to keep the sport pumping, drivers typically smirk at restrictor-plate races because the semi-artificial nature of that form of racing penalizes teams which would otherwise separate themselves from the pretenders.
Plate racing has been in style so long at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway that it’s almost an afterthought, but the idea of carrying the plates to other tracks on a regular basis is unsettling for most drivers. In other words, they say, if I’m fast, let me be fast.
At Michigan Sunday, they certainly were. Traffic rolled into turn one at startling speeds. Spot speeds at the edge of the first turn surpassed 220 miles per hour at one of auto racing’s fastest ovals. No power-sapping restrictor plates here.
Ironically, Clint Bowyer won the race standing still. He passed teammate Kevin Harvick on a late-race restart and was in first — under a red flag on pit road because of rain — when NASCAR called the race complete.
Purists would argue that racing is all about speed. Critics would say that speed is great but close competition is better. Slow the cars, they say, and it’s more likely that racing will be closer and generally more interesting.
The possibility that NASCAR might move toward more “managed” racing frightens some in the sport.
Brad Keselowski, often one of the most articulate spokesmen about racing’s big issues, plants himself firmly in that category. Racers want to race, he said, and some might go where they can do that more freely if NASCAR tinkers too much with its product.
“If you go to a package where drivers have less ability to determine their fate, they will go to an avenue where they can,” Keselowski said. “Right now, NASCAR affords itself the best opportunity for drivers to determine their own fate, make a decent wage and attain notoriety. Over time, if you went to a package such as this, it will go away.
“It won’t be overnight, but it will go away. I think that the trickle-down effect to that will be that eventually fans will recognize the best race car drivers and follow them. There is a reason why Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and some of the best drivers of our time moved from open-wheel to NASCAR. Kyle Larson is another great example.
“They know they have a better opportunity to effect their finish based on talent and know they are racing the highest-caliber race car drivers. They know that they can attain the highest level of notoriety with the highest wages in motor sports in the USA. I don’t think that is a coincidence.”
Strong words from Keselowski, but food for thought. NASCAR officials likely aren’t too worried about stars detouring to pastures that might or might not be greener, but they have a lot to consider over the coming months as they determine how the nature of competition will evolve.