POS­I­TIVE VIBES

Aero­dy­namic Changes Have Pro­duced High-Qual­ity Rac­ing in ’16

Cecil Whig - - SPORTS -

This week­end at Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR wraps its ver­sion of spring break. All three na­tional se­ries were quiet for the Easter week­end, and many driv­ers and teams took the time to travel and recharge from the sea­son’s first five races, which fea­tured im­proved com­pe­ti­tion and ex­cel­lent fin­ishes in its flag­ship Sprint Cup Se­ries.

NASCAR’s early re­port card is full of high marks made pos­si­ble by the sanc­tion­ing body’s aero­dy­namic rules changes that have put more of each race’s out­come back in its driv­ers’ hands. Those changes in­clude a smaller front split­ter (a flat plate that ex­tends for­ward from the bot­tom of the car’s nose), a re­duced un­der­body ra­di­a­tor pan and a smaller rear spoiler. Those changes re­duce the amount of air push­ing down on a race car’s body pan­els (downforce) and force teams to find other ways to make the cars stick to the track in the cor­ners.

For many years, NASCAR had gone the op­po­site way. More downforce was rou­tinely added to the Sprint Cup rule book un­til 2015 when it be­gan to trim away slightly from the spoiler and ra­di­a­tor pan. But the 2015 ef­fect was less pro­nounced be­cause NASCAR also re­duced horse­power, a move that seemed to counter-bal­ance the downforce change. NASCAR even­tu­ally sched­uled a four-race ex­per­i­ment: two events with much more downforce and two with much less. Af­ter the high-downforce pack­age pro­duced re­gret­table races at In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speedway and Michi­gan In­ter­na­tional Speedway, the de­ci­sion to use the lower pack­age was made easy for this sea­son.

So far, it’s been the sport’s best change in re­cent mem­ory that wasn’t safety-re­lated. Pass­ing is up, and the races have a com­bined av­er­age fin­ish mar­gin (0.367 sec­onds) af­ter five races that’s the lowest since 1993. Bet­ter yet? The driv­ers are en­thralled. “I think it’s sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than what we had last year,” said Jamie McMurray. “And I can’t find any­body that thinks dif­fer­ently. You can race a lit­tle bit closer. The car in front of you doesn’t mess up your car as much.” The sport’s most pop­u­lar driver has also been ef­fu­sive in praise. “Ev­ery week has been fun, fun, fun,” said Dale Earn­hardt Jr. “The cars are fun to drive, slip­ping and slid­ing. It’s a good chal­lenge and I’m en­joy­ing it.”

The process to this point hasn’t been all roses for NASCAR. The changes came with a ver­i­fi­able price. The dis­ap­point­ment of last year’s aero­dy­namic pack­age changes — and the ex­cep­tional cost it dealt to teams — con­trib­uted to NASCAR ced­ing sig­nif­i­cant power to its own­ers this sea­son in the form of a team charter sys­tem. A sport known to run from a bully pul­pit op­er­ates much dif­fer­ently these days.

A con­tribut­ing fac­tor to that change has been how NASCAR CEO Brian France has been viewed by the garage area. France made a sig­nif­i­cant mis­step af­ter the 2015 race Ken­tucky Speedway — one of the two low downforce ex­per­i­ment races last sea­son that pro­duced glow­ing re­views on all fronts — when he went on NASCAR’s satel­lite ra­dio chan­nel and poured cold wa­ter on the pos­i­tive vibes by say­ing he pre­ferred more pack rac­ing and draft­ing. It was a state­ment that seemed both odd (Ken­tucky or tracks like it have never pro­duced that type of rac­ing in NASCAR’s his­tory) and ill-timed.

An­other France mis­step this sea­son is the big­gest blem­ish on oth­er­wise great first leg of 2016. France, along with cur­rent and for­mer driv­ers, ap­peared at a Feb. 29 rally for Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump to of­fer what was later char­ac­ter­ized as a per­sonal en­dorse­ment. The move brought into ques­tion a de­ci­sion last sea­son by NASCAR to move ban­quet events out of a Florida re­sort owned by Trump af­ter NASCAR spon­sor Camp­ing World ob­jected to re­marks from Trump about Mex­i­can im­mi­grants.

Camp­ing World CEO Mar­cus Le­mo­nis pub­licly crit­i­cized France’s en­dorse­ment in a tweet. France, when in­ter­viewed later by the As­so­ci­ated Press nine days later, claimed sur­prise that he would be ques­tioned for the en­dorse­ment — an ex­pla­na­tion that Le­mo­nis called “typ­i­cal Brian” in an ESPN Ra­dio in­ter­view. “I’ve seen this hap­pen be­fore,” Le­mo­nis said. “He doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have all the facts and he picks up a vision and he does it with en­thu­si­asm and ex­u­ber­ance.”

For France and NASCAR, it seems the good rac­ing on-track couldn’t have come at a bet­ter time.

As the driv­ers re­turn from a brief spring break, it’s worth not­ing that the qual­ity of the rac­ing so far this sea­son has ex­ceeded even op­ti­mistic ex­pec­ta­tions.

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