Kingsport Times-News: Finally, a pair of NASCAR decisions to applaud
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Finally, a pair of NASCAR decisions to applaud

Jeff Birchfield • May 14, 2019 at 7:32 PM

NASCAR finally got the action on the intermediate tracks it had been looking for Saturday night.

It came as a result of a new rules package in 2019 designed to produce better and closer racing. That and a return to single-car qualifying are a couple of decisions I can appreciate as a longtime race fan.

Brad Keselowski edged Alex Bowman and Erik Jones to win Saturday’s Digital Ally 400 at Kansas Speedway in a race that featured 23 lead changes among 13 different drivers.

The manufacturers — Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota — finished 1-2-3 and there were several teams in contention to win.

Kevin Harvick, driving the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Ford, dominated early. Chase Elliott, in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, was best during the middle stages, and teammate Alex Bowman had the car to beat late.

Keselowski, driving the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, used the draft, lapped traffic and fresher tires on his car to pass Bowman for the win.

There was three-wide and four-wide racing not seen in previous Kansas races and the draft came into effect. The draft wasn’t the factor it is at the restrictor-plate tracks but enough to where drivers could get the big runs on other cars. If the trend continues, you could possibly see the slingshot moves made famous in the 1970s and ’80s on the larger tracks.

This was the fourth race on a mile-and-a-half track using the new package and it achieved the required results.

Two teams, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske, got the package figured out early and had a huge advantage over the first few races.

While Keselowski, driving for Penske, won the race, it was by no means a rout.

The new package became necessary because of the way technology has changed stock car racing over the last 30 years. 

If you watch clips of old races, the front of the cars are significantly higher off the ground and the drivers truly have a handful inside the cockpit. It was part of what made stock car racing special.

Over the last couple of decades, with much more emphasis on engineering, NASCAR machines are more like IndyCars. They’re low to the ground and, at a place like Kansas, the drivers race more wide open than being forced to get on and off the throttle.

Greater technology has created issues like aero push, often resulting in single-file racing — which can be boring to the majority of fans.

Saturday’s race was different, with the big runs producing side-by-side racing and slicing and dicing for the lead.

The race ranked with the Food City 500 at Bristol and the Geico 500 at Talladega among the best races of the early season.

With a third of the races held on the mile-and-a-half tracks, this is good news for NASCAR. If the trend continues the next couple of weeks in the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR may have finally hit on something to bring more excitement back into the sport.

LISTENING TO THE FANS

The decision to go back to single-car qualifying was also a success and met favorably by the vast majority of fans.

When NASCAR first talked about going to the group, knockout-qualifying format like that used in Formula One, there was the hype about how it would be as exciting as the race.

The announcers said, “Could teams even survive qualifying at Bristol without having to bring backup cars to the race?”

Instead, the format turned out to be a disaster as teams waited to the last minute to send their cars on the track. The cars didn’t get on the track at all for the final qualifying session at California, which led to the fans booing the whole concept.

Now with qualifying back to the original format, there aren’t the shenanigans played by the teams. It’s also easier for fans to keep up with, and it builds drama when there are fast cars left near the end of a session.

All of the cars and drivers are now highlighted in qualifying instead of a select few, and that helps the lower-tier teams trying to show value to sponsors.

MORE TO COME?

How much more will NASCAR “turn back the clock?”

Fans I have spoken with don’t like the stages. They’re more like, “Leave the timeouts and quarters for football and basketball, we don’t need it in racing.”

The majority of older fans don’t like the Chase, playoffs or whatever you want to call it, although it’s probably here to stay.

The idea of four drivers racing for the championship at the final race looks good on paper. However, fans have talked about how Harvick, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr. were more deserving of the 2018 championship than Joey Logano, who won just two races prior to Homestead.

To Logano’s credit, he did what he needed to and the history books will simply list him as the 2018 NASCAR champion.

The playoff worked better when it took all 10 races into account. It produced the single-best championship battle in history when Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards tied in the 2011 points. Stewart won the championship based on his five wins to one for Edwards.

Fans seem OK with the lucky-dog rule — putting the first driver a lap down back on the lead lap — since there is no more racing back to the finish line after the caution. Purists don’t like the wave-around rule, although it keeps many more cars in the lead lap.

It’s an interesting time for NASCAR with a lot of tough decisions, but I applaud them for taking a couple of steps in the right direction.

LOCAL SCHEDULE

Kingsport Speedway has another NASCAR Whelen All-American Series weekly program on tap for Friday night at the three-eighths-mile concrete oval. Besides a 60-lap main event for the featured Late Model Stock division, there are races for the Mod Street, Mod 4, Pure 4 and Pure Street classes.

Volunteer Speedway in Bulls Gap will try to get back after it following a month of rain-outs at the four-tenths-mile dirt track. The Fastrack Late Model tour $3,000-to-win race originally scheduled for May 4 is slated for Saturday night. The night’s program also has the Future Stars Late Model Tour as well as features for Sportsman Late Model, Classics, Mini Stocks and Mod Street.

Clay Valley Speedway in Coeburn has Mountain Mayhem — with more than $15,000 in prize money — on Saturday, May 25. The night features a $2,000-to-win race for the American All-Star Crate Series and a $1,000-to-win for the Mid-East Modified tour.

For two-wheel enthusiasts, the Hot Summer Nights Supercross Series is scheduled for I-81 Motorsports Park on Saturday.

Email Jeff Birchfield at jbirchfield@johnsoncitypress.com.

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