NASCAR sees better racing with rules package but can ‘continue to improve’

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A NASCAR executive saw signs of better racing with the new rules package at Las Vegas Motor Speedway but also said “we can continue to improve on that.”

Joey Logano beat Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski by less than a quarter of a second. The race featured aero ducts for the first time this season to go along with a tapered spacer that limited engines to 550 horsepower and other aerodynamic changes intended to keep the cars closer together.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, gave his review of the race:

“What we said from the beginning was we wanted to see the best car still win. We wanted the ability … if you look up in Turn 2 or Turn 3 during a run, we wanted to see the leader and the ability for second or third to be at least in that shot and have the ability to pass. We saw that.

“We certainly saw the last stage, 100-lap, green-flag run, no cautions and the top four within 2.5 seconds. So directionally I think better for sure but not satisfied. I’m a race fan first and liked what I saw but also think there’s more to come hopefully.”

What would make O’Donnell more satisfied with the race?

“I think it’s not really up to me,” he said. “It’s the fans. You want higher ratings and you want more butts in seats ultimately. You want rivalries out there and drivers getting after it. I think what happens in that situation is you have more passes for the lead and you have cars closer together. I think we’re on the march to do that. I think we saw some of that today, but we can continue to improve on that.”

Where will that improvement come from? 

“I think over time,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve said from the beginning this is going to be a season that we analyze. We’re not every race going to say was that a good race? I know fans do that.

“For us, directionally, are you improving upon where we wanted to be, and if you look at last year vs. this year, I would say we are. Was it tremendous improvement? Probably not, but again as a fan you want to see lead changes. We saw that today. I think if you would have looked in the past with no cautions, we would have seen someone check out all race long and we wouldn’t have seen a lead change.”

Sunday’s race saw 19 lead changes among nine drivers. The lead changes were the most for this event since the March 2016 race.

Eight of the 19 lead changes were passes on the track. The remaining lead changes were the result of green-flag pit stops when the leader came in or during stage breaks. Both stage breaks saw lead changes. Brad Keselowski took the lead with a two-tire stop after the end of the first stage. Kurt Busch took the lead after the second stage when he did not pit.

Sunday’s race also had cautions only for the two stage breaks.

“I think you never forecast a caution-free race other than the stages and that’s what you had,” O’Donnell said. “You had cars sticking together for a longer period on a restart. What we really wanted on an intermediate track was if you had a long green-flag run, the ability to make a pass during that stretch vs. one-second, two-, three-, four- (second lead), almost what you saw in stage one vs. the second and third.

“I think it was good to see directionality that guys could come up through the pack and make a pass for the lead. Still work to do. It’s early. Three different winners in three races. We’ll take this one and head to Phoenix.”

Asked about how difficult it was to come through the pack, Martin Truex Jr. said: “It’s insanely tough. You have to hope other guys run different lanes than you. It’s hard to follow through the corners. You have to be a half-second quicker than they are to be able to stay in line against them in the corners. It’s really tough once you get a few laps on your tires.”

Denny Hamlin said the racing was “about what I expected” with the rules package.

“The restarts were super exciting, and you’re able to kind of dice around and put yourself in good positions,” he said. “Then once it gets strung out with all the on-throttle time, it seems like the bottom lane is the place to be and then if you’re second you can’t run the bottom either because the wake is so big. It’s kind of a catch-22 and it will work really, really good at some tracks. Other tracks it won’t, but overall, I don’t know how tight the field was there, but it definitely seemed like it strung out.”

O’Donnell also addressed the penalties to the teams of Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon for having a crew member, who was behind the wall, reach over and touch the pit stall with their hand.

Section 10.9.8.i of the Cup Rulebook states: “Crew Members/Servicing: Crew member(s) purposely assisting (e.g. rolling tires, signboard) from the equipment side of pit road, either in the vehicle’s assigned pit box or in an adjacent pit box, may not contact the pit road surface and may be counted towards the six crew member total.”

Asked about those penalties after the race, O’Donnell said: “That’s the way the rule is written and we made that call. We’ll go back and continue to look at it but under the rule that’s the call we needed to make.”