The addition of heats to the late July NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway did as little for the racing product as the blistering summer temperatures did for the race’s attendance.
Running as the fourth and final round of the 2016 XFINITY Dash 4 Cash program, Saturday’s Lilly Diabetes 250 was the last of a trial run for heat races, following earlier rounds at Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Dover International Speedway.
The format for the races went as follows: The 40-car XFINITY field was split into two 20-car heat races, with starting positions in based on Coors Light Pole Qualifying speeds. Odd-numbered qualifiers ran in the first heat, with even-numbered qualifiers following in heat two.
In the event that more than 40 teams were to qualify for the event, the field was set by qualifications, meaning that any extra teams were eliminated after qualifying, not in the heats.
Once the field was set, the heat races were ran. The results of those heats determined the starting grid for the feature, with the top two XFINITY Series regulars from each heat qualifying for the Dash 4 Cash.
The heat races were completed with varying degrees of success in the spring races at Bristol, Richmond and Dover. With little to gain and everything to lose, teams often chose to lean on the cautious side during the short stints. The features, however, saw a noticeable change. With heats lessening the overall duration of the main race, the features were often intense battles, with track position valued above all else.
However, in their final test all the heat races did was exemplify the boring slog that is the XFINITY Series at the Brickyard.
Moved to the 2.5-mile oval from the .686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway in nearby Brownsburg, IN, back in 2012, the XFINITY Series race at Indianapolis has attained a negative image with the majority of the NASCAR populace. While some argue that the value and prestige of running at IMS exceeds the loss of LOR, it hasn’t stopped many – drivers included – from voicing their desire to return to the short track.
Curious to gauge the overall opinion from the fanbase, I created a poll on Twitter shortly before Friday’s ARCA Racing Series race at LOR asking fans where they would prefer to see the XFINITY Series. 24 hours later the results were clearly in favor of LOR.
Matt Kenseth, who rarely takes to social media for any sort of interaction, also made his way to Twitter Saturday afternoon to voice his opinion.
I miss the short track action at #IRP
— Matt Kenseth (@mattkenseth) July 23, 2016
The above tweets aren’t shown to make a case for bringing NXS back to LOR or to lambast NASCAR’s decision to move. The move to the Brickyard made financial sense at the time – the inaugural Indy 250 at IMS brought a total purse of $1,153,076, a $477,376 increase over the finale at LOR, and there’s been nothing to indicate that returning to the short track is any more feasible now than it was in 2012.
Still, that fans are continue to remain passionate about LOR and express their disdain for the NXS race at the Brickyard indicates that something needs to change, and heat races – at least in their current form – weren’t the correct answer on Saturday.
The two 20-lap heats to start the Lilly Diabetes 250 were an exercise in boredom. Both heats went caution-free, with Kyle Busch and Erik Jones stretching out to victories of 2.835 seconds and 8.314 seconds, respectively. Neither race offered much passing behind the leaders, either, with less than 10 green-flag passes in the top 10 of each race and a combined four start-and-park teams that failed to complete 10 laps.
Worse than the heats themselves, the feature seemed stripped of all excitement until two late caution flags added the slightest hint of intrigue. With only 60 laps to complete in the event, fuel-mileage racing was effectively eliminated. The lone strategy play teams could make during the opening green-flag run was to short pit, which found little success in a pack stretched out with multiple-second gaps between many of the drivers fighting for position.
Issues for Erik Jones and contact between Daniel Suarez and Brennan Poole on the ensuing restart drummed up a bit of excitement relative to the Dash 4 Cash program, with Justin Allgaier and JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler battling for $100,000 in the closing stint, but the fight up front remained nonexistent despite Busch being at a tire disadvantage as he drove off to a victory in clean air.
In all, the XFINITY Series again delivered arguably their worst race of the season at the most prestigious track on the tour, and in doing so continued a negative trend at the Indianapolis venue.
NASCAR, XFINITY and IMS should be acknowledged for trying something to attempt to add excitement and appeal to the event. Unfortunately, the gimmick simply didn’t work.
So, where do they go from here?
Predicting the next move for the July race at IMS is a difficult prospect. Perhaps a few tweaks to the format – namely not removing the heat laps from the feature – could make heat races viable, or perhaps a rules package change or a decision to run the road course could assist the racing product. There are many options to try. NASCAR simply needs to continue searching for the correct answer.
NASCAR’s top series deserves to race at the Brickyard, and there’s a strong case to be made for the XFINITY Series to continue to run there as well, but something needs to be done to address the poor quality of the racing, and Saturday’s heat races don’t appear to have been a viable answer.