Ten races into 2016, new rules, close rac­ing have driv­ers ex­cited about the NASCAR prod­uct

Cecil Whig - - SPORTS - By REID SPENCER

NASCAR Wire Ser­vice

Who knew at the time that Denny Ham­lin’s ra­zor-thin mar­gin of vic­tory in the Day­tona 500 would be em­blem­atic of the 2016 sea­son?

With a bold move off Turn 4, Ham­lin got to the fin­ish line roughly six inches ahead of Martin Truex Jr. The of­fi­cial mar­gin of vic­tory was .010 sec­onds, tied for sev­enth clos­est in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Se­ries since the ad­vent of elec­tronic tim­ing and scor­ing in 1993.

Two weeks later, Kevin Har­vick would du­pli­cate that win­ning mar­gin when he tri­umphed in a drag race to the stripe against Carl Ed­wards at Phoenix.

NASCAR driv­ers and fans alike have her­alded the qual­ity of rac­ing this sea­son, and there are plenty of sta­tis­tics to re­in­force their em­pir­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions. Seven of the first nine fea­tured vic­tory mar­gins of less than one sec­ond, the ex­cep­tions be­ing At­lanta, which ended un­der cau­tion af­ter 28 lead changes, and Texas, where Kyle Busch pulled away to win by 3.904 sec­onds af­ter 17 lead changes.

The seven races de­cided by less than a sec­ond are the most through nine events since the in­tro­duc­tion of elec­tronic tim­ing and scor­ing.

Three races this year have set records for green-flag passes for the lead, a loop data statis­tic that in­cludes in­tra-lap passes: At­lanta (44), Auto Club Speedway (51) and Bris­tol (40).

The 10th race of the sea­son, Sun­day’s GE­ICO 500 at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way, fea­tured 213 green-flag passes for the lead, the sec­ond most since the in­cep­tion of loop data in 2005 and only the sec­ond time that num­ber has topped 200. The record of 219 was set at Tal­ladega in Oc­to­ber 2013.

The bot­tom line is that 2016 al­ready has seen a ramped-up level of competition that has driv­ers rou­tinely ex­tolling the qual­ity of the rac­ing. On more than one oc­ca­sion, Dale Earn­hardt Jr. has climbed from his car af­ter a race and waxed elo­quent about the fun he’s hav­ing this year. The ques­tion is “Why?” By all ac­counts, the new low­er­down­force competition pack­age NASCAR has im­ple­mented this sea­son has made a huge dif­fer­ence. For one thing, Earn­hardt says, it feeds into the egos of the driv­ers.

“Man, they are way harder to drive,” Earn­hardt told the NASCAR Wire Ser­vice. “This seems weird to me, but it’s what you want. I don’t know if that makes sense to some­one who’s not a race car driver, but you want it to be hard, be­cause all the guys in the garage think they’re the best driver in the garage. And the harder we can make it, the better shot each one of them thinks they’ve got at win­ning, right?

“So all of us are like, ‘Make it harder; make it harder, be­cause that helps me.’ That’s pretty much the men­tal­ity in there. And so, I think you see in my con­ver­sa­tions with the fans a lit­tle bit, they’re see­ing the cars move around. That’s some­thing they hadn’t seen in a while. They’re see­ing the driv­ers wres­tle with the cars a lit­tle more, which is im­por­tant, to hav­ing a more ex­cit­ing prod­uct.

“And if they can fig­ure out a way to cap­ture more of that, par- tic­u­larly with the tele­vi­sion au­di­ence, I think we will be go­ing in the right di­rec­tion. But, yeah, the cars are way slicker, they’re harder to drive, they slide around on top of the track whereas in the past, they felt forced into the track and felt much more com­fort­able.”

Another con­tribut­ing fac­tor is the job Goodyear has done in match­ing tires cho­sen for par­tic­u­lar tracks with the lower-down­force rules pack­age. Driv­ers and crew chiefs have long ad­vo­cated for greater fall-off through­out a fuel run, and the rac­ing this year has en­hanced that as­pect of competition.

The new pack­age also has re­duced the ef­fect of “aero-push,” which in the past in­hib­ited driv­ers’ abil­ity to ap­proach and pass a slightly slower car.

“I think the big­gest thing I’ve no­ticed is just the abil­ity to race well in traf­fic, the abil­ity to run fast be­hind a car,” Truex said. “If you run a guy down, you don’t hit that wall (of air) three or four cars back and just can’t go as fast as you were go­ing be­fore. It gives you a lot more op­tions in traf­fic, a lot more pass­ing go­ing on.

“A few years ago, when we had a re­ally lot of down­force, when they dropped the green flag for the race and if you were mid-pack, you were out of con­trol and you couldn’t go any­where, and I’ve seen a lot less of that. Ob­vi­ously, the tires are a big, big part of what we’re do­ing with the low down­force with the tires wear­ing out and the car slow­ing down as the run goes on. It’s re­ally opened up a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Tire man­age­ment, too, has be­come a much more im­por­tant is­sue, be­cause the lower down­force has given Goodyear the lat­i­tude to bring gen­er­ally softer com­pounds to the track.

“We’ve seen some of the races where guys that maybe aren’t some of the fastest cars or don’t have re­ally good speed through­out the week­end all the sud­den 15, 20 laps in a run, they start com­ing to the front be­cause their cars han­dle well,” Truex said. “So it’s just given guys a lot more op­por­tu­ni­ties to pass and to make the rac­ing ex­cit­ing.”

“I feel like it’s been a lot more fun to drive the cars. It’s been a lot more fun to race with peo­ple, mov­ing around, find­ing new grooves, and I thought ‘Just look at what we saw at Rich­mond…’ That was the first time in years that we’ve run any­where ex­cept for the bot­tom, you know?

“We ran all over the track and that’s just highly un­likely for Rich­mond typ­i­cally, so I think it’s been re­ally good. I feel like the races have been ex­cit­ing and a lot more fun than past years, and I think they will just con­tinue to get better as we take down­force off and make the tires softer yet.”

GETTY IM­AGES FOR NASCAR

Denny Ham­lin cel­e­brates in Vic­tory Lane af­ter win­ning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Se­ries DAY­TONA 500 at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speedway on Fe­bru­ary 21, 2016 in Day­tona Beach, Fla.

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