Welcome to the Frontstretch Five! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy takes a look at some things we learned from the race at Kentucky Speedway last weekend.
1. The new aero package is a step in the right direction.
There was a lot of very good racing on Saturday night. The biggest thing noticeable to the naked eye was that drivers could pass each other without hitting a brick wall of aero push. Throughout the field, there was hard racing, sometimes three-wide, with the occasional and thankfully quickly aborted attempt at four across.
Another aspect that some fans no doubt enjoyed was the difficulty that a couple of big teams had adjusting to the new package. While in the end, it was still one of the predictable big-money teams taking the checkers, it wasn’t one of the two that have been so dominant on the 1.5-milers this season. While I don’t subscribe to the theory that any driver can win too much, or that that’s a detriment to anything, I do think it’s better for the sport as a whole to see a variety of drivers in Victory Lane over the course of a season. All in all, the new package gave race fans and teams something to be optimistic about.
2. But hopefully only the first step
For all the accolades and the great racing on Saturday, there is still work to be done. Clean air still matters at the front of the pack, and the finish wasn’t nearly as exciting as the rest of the race as a result. Some things will come with time; tires designed for the specific package, hopefully ones that will wear out more quickly, will make a difference.
After the race, many drivers expressed their excitement over the package, which definitely make the cars harder to drive and puts some elements of the race in the drivers’ hands. But Brad Keselowski did have some words of warning that once all the teams get a handle on the latest rules, the racing won’t be as good.
New package 👍🏻👍🏻
Give teams time to figure it out and it'll be 👎🏻
When we change it up and add variables, the racing is always great.
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) July 12, 2015
To a degree, he’s right because nobody will be able to take advantage of the struggles of others when everyone is more equal. The large number of cautions may also have contributed to the improved racing more than viewers realize, as the racing was kept tight for longer periods. I also worry about the effect of a lot of changes on the smaller teams, all of whom struggled hard in Kentucky. A few of them had been turning it around, and it’s unfortunate that because of a lack of resources, they lost a step or two. Lack of money does not equal lack of talent, but it does make for a lack of speed.
3. Kyle Busch can make the Chase
Busch won for the second time in three weeks and made up a boatload of points on 30th-place Cole Whitt. With eight races remaining before the Chase reset, Busch has to pick up another 87 markers to squeeze in. If Whitt remains in 30th, Busch needs to beat him by just over 10 spots per race… certainly doable barring a bad race. Busch is a talented driver in one of the best-funded cars in the sport. He cannot afford a backmarker finish, though, especially if Whitt has a decent day. That means tempering his checkers or wreckers drive to win with a bit of strategy.
Busch also has the whole of Joe Gibbs Racing behind him. With all three of his teammates safely in the Chase, the organization can focus on him. That doesn’t necessarily mean nefarious team orders. It could be as simple as the engine that tested five horsepower better on the dyno every week, or a new chassis that might otherwise have gone to a teammate. Could there be orders of a position here, a lap back there? Of course, but it’s more of an equipment push than anything.
4. But that doesn’t mean he should
Busch is a heck of a racecar driver and drives an exciting race. But after missing three months of the season, there are other drivers more worthy of a title this year – drivers who have raced every week or maybe missed a race due to injury or illness. One race is just not the same as more than a quarter of the season. Crowing a champion who realistically had no chance were it not for the huge number of points he’s handed via the reset just cheapens the title overall, no matter what the reason for that is. Busch made a valiant comeback from a horrific injury, but the sympathy card does not a champion make.
It’s not even really Busch’s fault; if the sport gave the title to the driver who earned the most points on his or her own each year, it would be a moot point, because Busch would finish somewhere in the lower 20s in points. Not a pretty sight, but a fair one to the drivers who did compete every week. It’s a testament to Busch’s skill if he can get into the top 30, but at the end of the day, if he does, he will be given too many points he didn’t earn on the race track. He won’t be alone, but his is the most glaring example of a flawed system.
5. Just because NASCAR says it’s a penalty doesn’t mean it’s a real one
I touched on this one in Big Six Monday, but two days later, it still doesn’t make sense for NASCAR to give the free pass to a driver who was the first one a lap down after he served a penalty for breaking a rule and not because he’d raced for and held that position. In essence, the wrong driver ends up paying the price.
On Saturday, Justin Allgaier was black-flagged for jumping a restart, and his trip to pit road to serve the penalty cost him a lap but put him back out on track in front of Casey Mears, who had raced his way into the free pass position. When the caution flew a lap or two later, NASCAR gave the free pass to the first car a lap down… which happened to be Allgaier’s. Under current rules, that was the correct call, but it leaves a sour taste. Mears, who had broken no rules, essentially took the penalty instead of Allgaier by being trapped a lap down despite having put himself in position to regain the lead lap. Fortunately for the No. 13 team, the caution flew again quickly and Mears did get his lap back, but had the race had a long green-flag run, he could have easily never had the opportunity, which just doesn’t seem right.
Really, if a team and driver are penalized for breaking the rules, should they be eligible for the free pass at all during the remainder of the race? There are, after all, plenty of teams who didn’t break rules who could benefit most weeks, and even if there are not, it seems silly to essentially erase the effect of a penalty by giving the driver the lap(s) it cost him back later. If he gets the pass and goes on to win, is that really OK? I don’t think it is, and I’d like to see this loophole closed once and for all.