Krupa: NASCAR takes first step toward better racing

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Joey Logano and his wife Brittany celebrate in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway Sunday in Brooklyn, Michigan.

Brooklyn, Mich. – No one knew much what to expect when they got in the cars Sunday for the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Not the drivers, the crew chiefs, the crews, the broadcasters or anybody else.

But it all worked out well enough that, with some tweaks here and there, NASCAR might well be on the way to establishing a new, more exciting approach to racing in the Sprint Cup Series.

A major sports enterprise should be congratulated for taking a risk, listening to the drivers and changing the way it works by decreasing the downforce on the cars to make them marginally quicker and a lot more difficult to handle.

It felt more like racing than in previous Sprint Cup seasons, and certainly a lot more like racing than the last race at MIS in 2015, when high-drag package intended to increase passing instead robbed the race of nearly any sense of competitiveness.

“It was an amazing effort,” said Joey Logano, who won the race and assured Team Penske that he and his mate Brad Keselowski will both qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, Roger Penske’s 50th in motor sports.

“With this rules package, you didn’t know what you were expecting headed into Turn One.

“It’s that thrill you get by controlling something that’s nearly out of control that’s how on edge you have to be to go that fast, and that’s awesome,” Logano said.

“That’s the sport part of this. It should be a challenge.

“It shouldn’t be easy.”

To hear a racer that happy, even in victory, about the quality of the racing is refreshing. The sport needs more of it.

Right direction

Race day began with tons of doubt.

By the end of it, the media was asking if the package raced Sunday, designed to be implemented in 2017, would instead be implemented this season.

That is unlikely. But as the brilliant sunshine began to cast long shadows at the track, the sense pervaded NASCAR might be on to something big.

“I think this new aero package is a move in the right direction,” said Dave Pericak, director of Ford Performance, which provided the horsepower for the winner. “I think that the racing was better today, for sure.

“It definitely puts it in the driver’s hands to truly drive the car, and bring out their skills.

“I think it’s a positive thing for the sport.”

Driver strategy

Make no mistake, though, NASCAR courted disaster.

Reducing the downforce on the cars by some 400 pounds made them both quicker and less stable.

It was a gamble, and there were those involved with the decision who fretted all week long. But, to a significant degree, it worked.

On Sunday, MIS was transformed from a track at which drivers held open the throttle all the way on the straights and eased up just a bit in the corners, to a track in which braking and the timing of braking in the corners is paramount.

Top speeds are now up to 216 miles per hour, with a drastic deceleration to 173 in the middle of the turns.

To see the cars loose enough to nearly wreck and the drivers pull them back into shape is an absolute thrill and, in my book, real racing.

“I applaud NASCAR for taking downforce away and the speeds are still so high because the surface is good and the Goodyear tires are good and everybody is working hard on their cars,” said Carl Edwards, who finished sixth.

Edwards and Keselowski were among the drivers arguing for changes last season, at MIS, and asserting it was time for NASCAR to listen more to the drivers

“They just keep working in this direction and we’re going to keep having better and better races,” Edwards said.

There were nine cautions, eight arguably caused by the looseness of the cars. But NASCAR may be able to tinker with the rules enough to eliminate some of them, and Goodyear might help by working more grip into the tires.

Meanwhile, the yellow flags and incumbent restarts contributed to terrific racing.

It felt like a bygone era.

Even the guy who finished near the back of the pack was impressed.

“I think it’s a good package,” said Denny Hamlin, who finished 33rd in a field of 40.

Some feared all of the emphasis on drivers’ skills would work harshly against the less experienced.

Instead, the race produced the youngest top three finishers, Logano, 26, Larson, 23, and Chase Elliott, 20, in the history of NASCAR’s premier division, breaking a mark that stood for 65 of the 67 years of the series.

And that is good for motor sport, too.