USA TODAY US Edition

GOOD RACING TRUMPS GIMMICKRY AT ATLANTA

- Jeff Gluck jgluck@usatoday.com USA TODAY Sports FOLLOW REPORTER JEFF GLUCK @jeff_gluck for breaking news and analysis from the racetrack.

“It reminded me a lot of the ’80s and ’90s, the good ol’ days. I never drove in those days, but it sure looked fun.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The laps went on and on for nearly two hours, the kind of endless parade that normally would have sent NASCAR fans into a tizzy.

But Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was different. The combinatio­n of NASCAR’s new lower downforce aerodynami­c package and Goodyear’s softer tire compound put on such a good show that even a mammoth 209-lap green flag run to start the race was quite enjoyable.

The action was single file, yes, but the drivers weren’t stuck in line. They could move through the field, catch one another, make passes and get punished if they wore out their tires too quickly.

In other words, they could race. The result was an entirely refreshing, delightful­ly old school event that reminded many fans why they fell in love with NASCAR in the first place.

“In the past couple years, (the cars have) really been stuck like glue, and it was very frustratin­g, because you couldn’t catch a guy,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “(Sunday), it seemed like you could move around and pass guys a whole lot easier. A couple times I drove up to guys in the corner. I ain’t done that in three years, four years. You just couldn’t do that before.”

The fans noticed, giving a generally positive response to the race on social media. An informal Twitter poll Monday had a 75% approval rating for the race after 1,600 votes.

Typically, the reaction for a 500-mile race with three cautions would be the opposite.

The angry howls from fans would be followed by industry hand-wringing about how NASCAR could satisfy the short attention spans of today’s world. Perhaps the 20-minute clock to trigger a caution in the Camping World Truck Series was needed in Sprint Cup. Maybe heat races.

Something.

But when the racing was as good as it was Sunday, there wasn’t any need for gimmicks. It was pure, it was competitiv­e, it was enjoyable.

If the Atlanta race was a movie poster and drivers were the critics, the quotes would look something like this:

“This is real racing. You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they’re worth.” — Carl Edwards

“It reminded me a lot of the ’80s and ’90s, the good ol’ days. I never drove in those days, but it sure looked fun.” — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“That race felt like I was in 1975. That was kind of awesome. I should grow my sideburns out after that one.” — Brad Keselowski

Kyle Busch got out of his car on pit road and made a beeline for Earnhardt, where they laughed and smiled about one of their midrace battles. Busch said the racing was “entertaini­ng slip- ping and sliding.”

Joey Logano said a driver with a fast car “definitely could pass the car in front of him, no doubt.” What a concept! Racing on 1.5-mile tracks is never going to look like Daytona Internatio­nal Speedway or Talladega Superspeed­way, nor should it. But the quality of racing Sunday was perfectly fine, and it’s not a stretch to say NASCAR would be in better position as a sport today if the last 10 years hadn’t been plagued by aero-dependent cars and clean air.

Now the focus turns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the next race — and next 1.5-mile track — on the schedule. Will the show be as good as it was at Atlanta?

The guess here is probably not. Atlanta had an abrasive surface and increased tire wear working in its favor, but Vegas will be better than most intermedia­te track races in recent years.

That would be an excellent developmen­t, because if NASCAR can keep this up, it might turn out that pure racing was the boost the sport needed all along.

 ?? JOHN DAVID MERCER, USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Jimmie Johnson won Sunday’s well-received race, 2016’s first with a lower downforce aero package on a 1.5-mile track.
JOHN DAVID MERCER, USA TODAY SPORTS Jimmie Johnson won Sunday’s well-received race, 2016’s first with a lower downforce aero package on a 1.5-mile track.
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