Let’s call Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 a good first step.
The race was the debut of the much-anticipated lower aerodynamic down force package NASCAR created in the off-season. After using a similar style rules package last year at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway, both which produced rather competitive racing, the sanctioning body with the input of the garage area created the 2016 rules similar in style.
What transpired at Atlanta Motor Speedway gave a good indication things are headed in the right direction.
There was significant tire wear throughout the race, forcing drivers to manage their Goodyears accordingly. The track’s worn out surface in combination with the lower down force and the new tire compound allowed drivers to pass throughout the field, something that was much tougher to do on 1.5-mile tracks in particular under the old rules.
Leaders also did not simply check out from the field in clean air and drivers that had fast cars could run down the top spot. There were several good battles for the lead during the 500-mile grind as well as competitive racing back in the field.
While it won’t be considered an “instant classic,” despite the dramatic overtime finish Jimmie Johnson had to survive in order to win, Atlanta proved taking down force away can indeed trigger better competition.
It’s a work in progress that will continue to evolve next week at Las Vegas, the following week in Phoenix and at the end of the three-race west coast swing in Fontana.
Sunday in Atlanta provided a realistic ray of optimism going forward.
Matt Kenseth had a tough follow-up to his Daytona 500 disappointment Sunday in Atlanta. His team was penalized for an infraction that saw the fuel man on the No. 20 squad place a piece of equipment on the deck lid of the car while the fuel hose was engaged, which is illegal according to the NASCAR rulebook. Unfortunately, for Kenseth he did not know NASCAR had black-flagged him while his team was arguing with officials on pit road and he was subsequently not scored dropping at one point two laps off the lead. While the rule is clearly spelled out, the miscommunication with the 20 team on several fronts unfortunately made a huge impact.
NASCAR did confiscate parts from Richard Childress Racing teams during Sunday’s pre-race inspection. Braces in the right rear corner of the cars driven by Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon and Paul Menard were taken by NASCAR officials and will be inspected at the R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina this week. While NASCAR did not like the parts there are not expected to be any penalties assessed to the team.
The lower aerodynamic package was thought to suit drivers with dirt track experience like Kyle Larson. But after a stellar run in the XFINITY Series race on Saturday when he did his best to run down the dominant Kyle Busch, Larson was off from the drop of the green flag in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race. After a top-10 finish to start the year at Daytona, it was a letdown for the Chip Ganassi Racing team to not have a better outing from the third-year driver in Atlanta.
Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race will go down as the first to use the controversial caution clock, which is triggered after 20 minutes of green flag racing. As intended, the format bunched up the field and set into motion a number of strategies in the opening segment of the race. It is ironic that despite its criticism from some, many fans on social media were asking for the clock to be used in the Sprint Cup Series race, which started with 209 caution free laps. Ah the fickle nature of NASCAR Nation.