Long: Path to better NASCAR shouldn’t be us vs. them

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A tug-of-war is emerging in NASCAR that is unsettling and unnecessary.

This is not us vs. them.

This should be us and them — collaboration not conflict.

Instead, a fissure has developed between competitors and fans over the aero package and restrictor plates used in last month’s All-Star race. As talks continue among teams, drivers, engine builders and NASCAR on where to run this package again this season, questions have been raised about the type of racing it creates.

Former champion Brad Keselowski says that using the package too often could have long-term negative effects for the sport. But many fans were encouraged by the closer racing the package produced in the All-Star event. Their excitement helped spur NASCAR to examine running that package later this season — likely Michigan in August and Indianapolis in September — after the sanctioning body initially downplayed the chances of doing so.

It’s not uncommon for competitors and fans to be on opposite sides, but this issue cuts to a basic premise. What makes better racing? What lengths should NASCAR pursue to achieve that?

While fans see the potential for added excitement on the track, Keselowski sees a driver’s ability lessened.

“I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers,’’ he said this past weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “I think if you put a package like this out there, like we had at the All-Star race on a consistent basis, that the best drivers in the world will no longer go to NASCAR.

“They want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance and there is no doubt that the driver makes less of a difference with that rules package.”

That didn’t seem to matter to many fans after the All-Star race. Social media reaction and effusive fan comments on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio followed for days after the non-points race — a reaction rarely seen about that race in recent years.

Although the aero package and restrictor plate combination has been tried at Indianapolis, Pocono and Michigan in the Xfinity Series and at Charlotte in Cup, NASCAR has not stated how many races or where they hope to run this type of package in 2019 and beyond.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, stressed that Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, saying: “This (package) is not something we’re looking at for every race. I see some of our current drivers make assumptions when they don’t have all the facts. It’s something we’re looking at for a few tracks. If we could pull it off and improve on something, we will but also very happy with the racing we have today.”

With restrictor plates choking horsepower and aero changes intended to help cars run closer, Keselowski’s concern is that races on some 1.5- or 2-mile tracks will look similar to the racing at Daytona and Talladega. That means drivers are less in control of their fate.

“I would say most plate tracks, first through fourth has control of their own destiny and have acquired that finish based on talent, skill, etc.,’’ said Keselowski, whose five Talladega wins and one Daytona triumph are the most victories at restrictor-plate tracks than any other active driver. “From there on back it is a random bingo ball.”

Hall of Famer Mark Martin tweeted that he agreed with Keselowski and said that while he enjoys many of the changes the sport has made — including the playoffs and stage racing — he does not want to see a package that makes it easier for more drivers to win Cup races.

“Racing in NASCAR is supposed to be the hardest, most difficult thing that you could ever try to do as a race car driver,’’ Martin said this past weekend at Michigan. “It really, really hurts me to think about that we want to change to satisfy Johnny-come-lately fans.

“There are some issues that could be addressed about our racing, but artificially making the racing exciting for a portion of the fans to me is not what, I’d rather see that in (the Xfinity) race, not (the Cup) race.”

Sports need to be challenging. Sports also need to entertain and wow fans with feats that no average person can do. It’s why people watch LeBron James on a basketball court, Tom Brady on a football field and Sidney Crosby at a hockey rink. Rules have changed over the years in their sports, some dramatic, some subtle, but their athletic prowess remains constant.

Even if a driver’s ability may be limited in a handful of races that doesn’t mean that some fan can do what Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson do in a car. 

The restrictor plates and aero package used in the All-Star race and at Xfinity races, create a different set of challenges for drivers but still allows them to display their ability.

“I think it’s a different type of talent,’’ Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon said this past weekend. “To be inches off of one another, pushing, shoving, wide open around there, making the correct moves, jumping out of line at the right times.

“It’s a real chess match out there and putting yourself in a good position is very key. I think it’s a different type of talent, obviously, than what we do every week. I think it’s good to have these type of races. If the fans love to see it and it looks good and creates drama, I like it. I don’t know its an every week package but for these types of tracks it’s good.”

It’s not just NASCAR facing such issues. This is a topic in IndyCar, particularly with the Indianapolis 500.

Last month’s 500 featured 31 lead changes. That was more lead changes in any Indianapolis 500 from 1911-2011.

Problem was that the 31 lead changes this year were the fewest since 2011. The race averaged 44.7 lead changes from 2012-17 when it appeared more like a video game with its back-and-forth passing.

This year’s total marked a 30.7 percent decline in lead changes. It’s why some have wondered if rule changes need to be made for that series to make passing easier at the front — and in theory make the race more exciting.

There needs to be a balance there and for each motorsports series. Not every race will be spectacular. Not every game is in other sports. For every moment of greatness, there are others that are merely satisfying. The key is to find a way that appeals to fans and also works with competitors. 

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Austin Cindric wins pole for Xfinity race at Iowa Speedway

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Austin Cindric won the pole for tonight’s Xfinity Series race at Iowa Speedway, claiming his first career pole.

The Team Penske driver earned the pole with a top speed of 131.409 mph.

The rookie is followed by Daniel Hemric (130.988 mph), Brandon Jones (130.836), Elliott Sadler (130.532) and Cole Custer (130.435).

“It’s huge for me, it’s a huge weight off my shoulders as well …Being so close to so many poles these last few races with these Penske guys,” Cindric told Fox Sports 2.

Kaz Grala will make his best-career start in eighth. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Riley Herbst will start ninth in his series debut.

Seven of the starting top 10 have never won a series race.

Justin Haley will start 13th. He will be followed by Shane Lee, John Hunter Nemechek, Ross Chastain, and Ty Majeski.

Christopher Bell and Ryan Reed will start from the rear after they failed to get through inspection in time to make a qualifying attempt.

The race is scheduled to start at 5:14 p.m. ET.

Click here for qualifying results.

Today’s Xfinity race at Iowa: Start time, lineup and more

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series enjoys the spotlight with the Cup Series off and no Cup drivers competing in today’s race at Iowa Speedway.

There’s a good chance of seeing a new winner for this season. Only three drivers who have won this year (Tyler Reddick at Daytona, Christopher Bell at Richmond and Justin Allgaier at Dover) are entered in today’s race.

Here are the details for today’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Craig Abel will give the command to start engines at 5:07 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 5:14 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 250 laps (218.75 miles) around the 0.875-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 60. Stage 2 ends on Lap 120.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 11 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 2 p.m. Qualifying is at 2:35 p.m. Driver introductions are at 4:30 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Specialist Michelle Monroe from the Iowa National Guard 34th Army will perform the anthem at 5:01 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the race beginning at 5 p.m. Coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 4:30 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will have MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for mostly sunny skies with a high of 90 degrees and zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: William Byron won this race last June. Ryan Sieg was second. Tyler Reddick placed third. Ryan Preece won the July race. Kyle Benjamin was second. Brian Scott placed third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the lineup.

Kyle Larson wins Ohio Sprint Speedweek race at Eldora

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A night after wrecking and heavily damaging his car, Kyle Larson came back to win round two of the Cometic Gasket Ohio Sprint Speedweek series Saturday night at Eldora Speedway.

Larson, competing in the first six rounds of the nine-round series with the Cup Series off this weekend, held off former NASCAR driver Dave Blaney late to win the A feature. Blaney fell to third on the last lap. Carson Macedo was second.

Rico Abreu finished 10th. Tony Stewart, who won the B feature, placed 16th. Kasey Kahne was 20th.

The victory is Larson’s first in the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions at Eldora. It is his seventh victory in the series.

“I made a mistake last night and it cost us a car,” Larson said, according to the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions report. “This really makes up for that. I’ve now won in every kind of car I have ever raced here at Eldora. That’s pretty cool considering I’ve only raced here like 10 times.”

Ohio Sprint Speedweek continues Sunday at Waynesfield Raceway Park.

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Race results, Truck Series point standings after Iowa

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Brett Moffitt took the lead at the beginning of the final stage of the M&M’s 200 and held the lead for the final 76 laps to win his second race of the season and the first on his home track of Iowa Speedway.

In the final 10 laps, Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton were able to close the gap as Moffitt lost ground on his older tires. That gave Gragson the opportunity to make a banzai move in turn four. Gragson slapped the wall hard on exit, but retained his second-place position.

Pole winner Burton finished third.

David Gilliland and Johnny Sauter rounded out the top five.

Click here for complete results.

Finishing second, Gragson was able to make up a little ground on points leader Johnny Sauter – cutting the points lead to 71 from 77. Gragson remains second in the standings.

Moffit’s Iowa victory cements his third-place position in the standings.

Stewart Friesen and Grant Enfinger round out the top five.

Click here for the complete points standings.