New NASCAR rules aid old-time racing

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Suppose they went racing and no one passed.

So much for the racing.

With high technology and advanced engineering producing increased precision in motor sports in recent decades, many cars, drivers and teams perform about the same.

Keeping things competitive and exciting is a challenge for all governing bodies.

NASCAR officials are implementing a new set of specifications for the first time in the Sprint Cup race Sunday in Brooklyn, the FireKeepers Casino 400.

The so-called package is intended to restore some of that old-time racing, with a quicker car that must be slowed in corners. The new rules are designed to increase top speeds and instability, encouraging passing and re-emphasizing the driver as opposed to the machine.

If it sounds like it might add up to more incidents and wrecks, that is anticipated, at least until drivers get the hang of it.

“Candidly, until we figure it out, we can have more spins, here,” said Roger Curtis, president of Michigan International Speedway.

The modifications are the talk of NASCAR this week.

“There are absolutely no negatives,” said Carl Edwards, who is fourth in the Sprint Cup standings.

Before Jack Roush, the Eastern Michigan graduate whose automotive supply company is in Livonia, brought Edwards into racing, Edwards said he was a fan.

“This was something I dreamed of doing and watched on television, the things that I grew up watching driver do with these race cars,” said the Missourian, who now drives for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Like that picture with cars sideways and hanging it out. Stock car racing, NASCAR racing is built on that.

“I can’t applaud NASCAR enough for going in that direction. I think we’re just going to have better and better racing.”

Increasing speed on the straightaways and obliging the driver to “let up in the corners,” back off the throttle to maintain control of the car, should juggle the racing order more often and put a premium on the skill and guile of the racers.

“Some will have to get off the gas sooner than others, some will be able to get on the gas sooner than others,” said Curtis, an administrator in motor sports for more than 30 years.

“That, by definition, is what’s going to create passing opportunities and create challenges for the teams in getting their cars to handle right, and Goodyear with their tires.”

It also creates a degree of uncertainty for the weekend.

“Should be interesting how the cars handle around each other,” said Austin Dillon, a driver who tested the package at MIS in May.

“I think the traffic will be pretty wild for a little while so you will have to take it one lap at a time, to see what it brings you.”

Last season, mindful of the relatively new track surface at MIS and the racing groove still being established, NASCAR officials sought to encourage passing at MIS by introducing a high-drag package that featured a huge rear spoiler.

Not only did a member of the tire changer hurt himself on the additional three inches of wing running higher along the back edge of the car, the cars were hard to handle in more turbulent air when the field stretched out.

Instead of more packs of cars and slingshot passes, as was intended and expected, drivers who knew they had fast cars got bogged down.

One could see it written all over the face of Brad Keselowski, the only Michigan-born champion in the history of NASCAR’s top classification, when he entered the media room.

“It wasn’t fun,” the native of Rochester Hills said. He drives for Team Penske and is currently third behind Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, and five points ahead of Edwards.

“This package increasingly rewards car over driver and I am not a fan of that.”

After testing in June, Keselowski was enthusiastic.

“The racing is more in the hands of the drivers than it has been in quite some time and I think we are just scratching the surface as to what this package can become,” said the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, who never has won at MIS.

“I always want to win when I go to Michigan no matter what the package, and this year’s no different.”

His teammate, Joey Logano, described the results behind the wheel.

“I think anytime we take downforce off the cars, we’ve seen it’s a win,” Logano said.

“We’re going to make the hole in the air evens smaller and less aero-dependent. We should be able to get off the throttle at Michigan and there are times when you’re just wide open and going so fast.

“Top speeds are going to be fast, for sure. But there’s that acceleration and needing to lift and that’s going to create passing out there.”

In NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One or other forms of racing, the precision wrought by advances in technology and mechanics has made cars faster and the differences between them thinner.

An almost universal complaint from fans and drivers alike is the resulting reduction in competitiveness.

The days when a minor adjustment in the pits or sheer determination of a driver could spring a car from the middle of the pack to victory too often feels like an old memory.

“The drivers want to be challenged,” Curtis said.

“They want to be able to race, to catch, to pass to fight for the lead.

“They want the cars to be harder to drive.

“That’s fun to them, when the rear end breaks loose and they have to catch it.

“That makes it more challenging, exciting and fun for them, and that’s what makes it more exciting and fun for us, as race fans.”