Ryan: The racing was good at Kentucky … but the reasons why are more important


SPARTA, Ky. – Maybe NASCAR should consider changing its rules every week?

Spin a gargantuan wheel to determine spoiler heights during prerace ceremonies. Sequester team engineers in soundproof chambers during races. Randomly change radio frequencies during the course of green-flag sequences.

This, of course, is folly inspired by the giddiness of witnessing the best Sprint Cup race of a 2015 season lacking for the sort of indelible moments that ran on a continuous loop Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

But after the smashing debut of a lower-downforce package, why stop there?

Fourth-place finisher Carl Edwards doesn’t think NASCAR should.

And the biggest takeaway from the Quaker State 400 is it proved the sanctioning body probably isn’t done, either.

“I cannot say enough positive things about this direction NASCAR is going with less downforce,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “If you give Goodyear a little bit of time to work on a tire, take away another 700 (to) 1,000 pounds of downforce, we’re going to be racing. I felt like a race car driver.

“I could actually drive the car, I was steering and sliding. I about wrecked a few times. I felt like I was doing something.”

It felt as if we were watching something, too.

At the most maligned racetrack on the Sprint Cup circuit, NASCAR delivered, hands down, the most beguiling show on a 1.5-mile oval since last season’s gripping season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The numbers bore it out – 2,665 green-flag passes, a 132 percent increase over last year’s 1,147. There were a Kentucky-record 22 green-flag passes for the lead in a race with only 10 green-flag lead changes at the finish line – a telling indicator of how often the lead was being swapped during the course of a lap amid side-by-side battles galore for first.

Race winner Kyle Busch vs. Brad Keselowski.

Carl Edwards vs. teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin (and on a breaktaking swing to the bottom).

Busch vs. Joey Logano.

Though the race effectively was over when Busch took the lead for good with 20 laps remaining (leaving Kentucky still hunting for its first lead change in the final 10 laps of five Cup races), there was enough compelling evidence for a strong case the package should get another shot beyond the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

That would mean continuing to experiment with the rules during the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship playoff – an option that NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell left on the table last week.

There might be less resistance to that concept now than before Kentucky.

“Sold,” Edwards said with a smile when told of the passing statistics Saturday. “Keep doing it. Ship it.”

If the goal of reducing downforce as much as 30 percent was to de-emphasize aerodynamics and make it easier for drivers with stronger cars to slice through traffic, Keselowski made the best case for why it seemed to work.

Three times, his No. 2 Ford was mired deep in traffic as a result of being off-sequence on strategy or a subpar pit stop, but he roared forward after every restart on a track whose abrasive surface isn’t conducive to handling.

Hamlin fell two laps down after an unscheduled green-flag stop for a flat tire and a resultant speeding penalty. He finished third.

“I passed a ton of cars,” he said. “I blew a right front from abusing it, but that’s what this package is supposed to do.  You overdrive the car, you pay the price.

“So, this is what race car driving’s all about. 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 build the fastest cars in the shop.”

It’s too early to proclaim NASCAR smacked a home run in the quest for enhancing the quality of racing. Kentucky isn’t the best barometer for how races might unfold at the other seven 1.5-mile tracks, and Saturday marked only the first in a series of midseason experiments aimed at changing the game.

In upcoming races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, a high-drag package – essentially the opposite of Saturday night – will be rolled out.

At the dawn of a “race-specific” era in which changes will be tailor -made to tracks instead of manufacturers or seasons, there is justifiably cautious optimism.

“It’s just one race,” Hamlin said. “I think we can make it better. I think this is just a first little bits and pieces.”

The encouraging sign is NASCAR has shown the willingness to be aggressive in trying to improve.

There were many righteous openings for backing off the new package at Kentucky. Goodyear didn’t have time to bring a softer tire to match the loss of grip and provide drivers more security to maneuver. The frustrating confluence of persistent rain and weepers kept cars off the track for several hours of scheduled practice.

NASCAR and its stars still stayed on plan while trying to manage expectations, warning the tenuous preparations might deliver less-than-optimum results.

But instead, it might have helped juice the show. Without much track time to validate their sophisticated simulation programs, teams scrambled on the fly to adapt.

That’s a recognizable concept to the NASCAR R&D Center, where the buzzword these days is “nimble.” After years of trying to set rules for the course of a full season, the philosophy changed virtually overnight to trying to marry rules packages to tracks.

NASCAR, which sometimes is beset too easily by decades of institutional paralysis, must remain vigilant about being faithful to that direction.

As Keselowski noted postrace on Twitter, Sprint Cup engineers are too smart for teams to struggle for long. Solutions will emerge that help handling, and then the package could need more tweaking – perhaps by chopping the spoiler even further as Edwards as recommended.

He has been among the most vocal lobbying hard for changes like Saturday, even as NASCAR was committed to other directions. During a frenetic test last August at Michigan, eight combinations were tried. The last was a lower-downforce package (but higher horsepower) similar to Kentucky – implemented solely because drivers begged for it.

There were 10 of them raving about the results that day … but it still took NASCAR nearly a year to try it again in earnest.

Within the new setting of monthly meetings with driver councils, that response time must be more rapid. Often motivated by an understandably self-centered desire for personal results than the sport’s greater good, drivers aren’t always the best sounding boards.

Yet Kentucky illustrated their feedback is important.

“I had more fun racing tonight than I had on a mile-and-a-half (track) in a long, long time,” Edwards said. “NASCAR wants this to be the best product on the planet. And after some of the conversations that we have had, I’m really impressed that NASCAR tried this package.

“It says a lot about their willingness to try different things. Because I don’t really believe this is the package they wanted to try.”

All that mattered Saturday night is that it was the package that worked.

If that remains the guiding principle, NASCAR will be in a better spot.