Ryan: The Brickyard’s memorable day left NASCAR with a pleasant dilemma for next season

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Competition executive Steve O’Donnell leaned against a counter in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center last Saturday and plainly answered questions about the closest NASCAR finish in track history.

Why wasn’t he more enthused after the Xfinity Series experiment of using aero ducts and restrictor plates to prevent runaway leaders was received as a smashing success?

“I know there’s a race tomorrow,” O’Donnell said with a smile as if he were amused by reading the thought bubbles above the heads of several reporters surrounding him for fresh quotes.

Each of us was thinking, “There is no possible way the main event will match today’s warmup act.”

Indeed, the Brickyard 400 did leave NASCAR in a bit of quandary about race quality – but it wasn’t the dilemma that anyone would have predicted.

Sunday’s Cup show – with legitimate three-wide racing for the lead, scintillating strategy developments and heart-pounding restarts (that led to some wall-pounding impacts) – was the best race of the weekend.

Quite possibly, it was a candidate for best race of the year, a pronouncement that would have seemed laughable in Indy’s typically follow-the-leader confines for stock cars.

The most indelible moment of the 2017 season was eventual winner Kasey Kahne sandwiched between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski entering the third turn on what should have been the penultimate lap of the race.

If Johnson had managed to hang on to win his record-tying fifth Brickyard with smoke billowing from the expiring engine in his No. 48 Chevrolet, it probably would have been remembered as the defining moment of an illustrious career. Certainly, it would have been the signature highlight of a race whose luster has been maligned by grandstands increasingly vacant since the 2008 tire debacle.

All of this has left NASCAR with a tougher decision than it might have anticipated about the future of the Brickyard.

The overwhelmingly positive reviews Saturday made it seem a foregone conclusion that the same rules would be applied to Cup in 2018.

That still seems the likely course of action (after a confirmation test with the higher-powered Cup cars), but there now is much more to weigh. While cars often were clumped in clusters that were conducive to passing, the Xfinity race didn’t feature the insanity of Sunday’s late restarts (it was more like the slow build of Daytona and Talladega).

Would harnessing the horsepower of the Cup cars diminish the likelihood for such fantastic finishes again?

It’s a critical question because so much hangs in the balance of a race that admittedly faces an uncertain future because of poor attendance and previously lackluster action.

It took 24 editions of the Brickyard 400 to get a finish as memorable as Sunday’s.

And maybe it would take just as long to get another. There were many extenuating circumstances that fostered Sunday’s outcome, namely the two best Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. being eliminated.

While leading 95 of the first 110 laps, Busch and Truex routinely built large gaps on the field. Their simultaneous disappearances turned the final 55 laps into a free-for-all that could have been won by at least a half-dozen drivers.

And then the timing of several caution flags made some strategies suddenly become sublime, putting Trevor Bayne in position to win for the first time in six years (before another yellow) and setting up Kahne to end a 102-race winless streak after two more memorable restart duels with Keselowski (in which the leader lost both times after choosing the outside lane).

The race admittedly could be run another 24 times and fail to produce action as scintillating because of a differing chain of events.

There are some other stats to consider (courtesy of colleague Dustin Long). In the Xfinity race at Indy, six of the 16 lead changes occurred on track under green, and only one was on a restart. In Cup, five of 10 lead changes were on track under green, and three were on restarts.

According to NASCAR loop data, the Xfinity race had a track-record 1,554 green-flag passes, a 66% increase over 2016. There were 29 green-flag passes for the lead (measured between scoring loops and not just the finish line), a massive spike over just two last year.

The optics of switching up the rules in the aftermath of the most memorable Brickyard in more than a decade still will ring a little hollow.

No matter which rules path NASCAR chooses, there’s one overwhelming positive development from the weekend.

The concept of running the road course has been tabled for at least another year (and hopefully for good).

When the circumstances and conditions are right, Sunday reaffirmed the world’s most famous layout should feature only left turns for NASCAR.

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The yellow flag flew roughly 3 to 4 seconds after the last crash in the Brickyard 400 by which time Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski had crossed the overtime line.

Some viewed this as an abomination in which NASCAR deliberately waited for an imaginary plane to be broken before declaring a caution.

This partly would be surmising that a delay of 3 to 4 seconds would constitute an interminable delay for a caution flag in the history of NASCAR officiating. This also would be patently untrue.

Anyone remember the 2007 Daytona 500? The final lap of the Nov. 2012 race at Phoenix International Raceway? The last lap at Watkins Glen International earlier that season?

Here’s a helpful refresher video if you had forgotten:

The delay on Sunday’s final caution wouldn’t rank in the top 20 of slowest triggers in NASCAR yellow-flag history. But an arbitrary line distorted that perception and turned a moot point (the threat of darkness ensured that would be the final restart, regardless of whether the overtime line was crossed) into a misguided crusade for officiating “consistency.”

The only real takeaway from Sunday’s ending is that it’s yet another reason why NASCAR’s overtime policy should be eradicated in full next season.

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As far as long waits Sunday, Erik Jones endured one that received far less immediate attention but hopefully received much more scrutiny in retrospect.

After wrecking with 11 laps remaining in the scheduled distance, Jones had enough time to climb out of this battered Toyota, remove his helmet and sit on the SAFER barrier for a few minutes until safety personnel arrived.

Yes, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch took wicked hits in the same crash and deserved immediate attention, but Jones’ wreck showed response times remain an area of improvement in the first year of NASCAR’s traveling medical team.

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Team Penske’s expansion with Ryan Blaney next year will be the first time the organization fields a third car in eight years, and it follows much deliberation about how to approach the move.

Penske never won a race with a third full-time car in 2004-05 and ’08-10, posting 14 top 10s in 142 starts while finishing no higher than 28th in the points standings with Brendan Gaughan, Travis Kvapil and Sam Hornish Jr.

There was much debate internally since about how and when the team should approach another addition. At least one school of thought advocated for any expansion including at least two cars, a la the Hendrick Motorsports model, because the third car always had seemed isolated and adrift from the team’s twin anchors.

Much has changed organizationally and structurally since 2010, though, and the success of Ryan Blaney at Wood Brothers Racing in the No. 21 the past two seasons as a de-facto third car for Team Penske quelled any concerns about whether it work in house.

“If you look at the history prior to 2010, as an organization in the Cup Series, we were hit-and-miss,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. “I don’t feel like we were a contender every weekend to win races. I think that hurt us when we were trying to bring a driver forward in Sam, where he didn’t really have a lot of stock-car experience.

“I feel like right now it’s an organization where we have things in place, and I think we understand why we win, and I think we understand when we’re not winning why we’re not winning. Before I don’t think we had that in place. We’ve had quite a bit of continuity since then in a lot of places. We’ve grown our crew chiefs all the way through the Xfinity Series into the Cup Series. We’ve grown a lot of our own people, our own processes.

“Nothing is a given, but I think we’re much more well positioned for somebody like Ryan to come in and be successful. I think you see that with the technical partnership we have with the Wood Brothers because we could have never done that and been successful and won a race with a technical partnership back then either.”

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Paul Menard’s move, along with his family’s home improvement chain sponsorship, to Wood Brothers Racing raises some major questions for Richard Childress Racing.

Since 2011, Menards has been a cornerstone of RCR’s budget. As one of the only remaining full-season sponsors in NASCAR’s premier series, its departure leaves an eight-figure hole at RCR that could have major implications for the team’s future. RCR will need to refocus on replacing a major revenue source while shoring up its alliance deals (such as with JTG Daugherty Racing) that also help pay the bills.

Childress’ Wednesday release hinting at plans for a third car is encouraging, but the team’s situation will bear close watching until its 2018 lineup is unveiled.