Krupa: Racing remains a thrill, especially at MIS

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Kyle Larson takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup  Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Brooklyn, Mich. — Who can best handle the speed at Michigan?

The question hung heavily in the air, even as the fog was lifting six hours before the race Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, the fastest track in NASCAR.

The challenge, stated that simply, is perhaps the biggest reason to like motor sports, especially as it occurs at MIS.

Who triumphs by mastering their natural, indeed reflexive, fears and the enormous speed of the machines?

Ball and stick sports certainly have their place, especially in my sports-obsessed hometown. The fealty of fans to the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons, Wolverines and Spartans leaves little room for racing.

But there are few bigger stages for racing automobiles, in the shadow of the manufacturers in the Motor City, than the swift track in the Irish Hills.

The racing at MIS is often elite.

The restarts after caution flags are among the most perilous, quickest and pivotal in the sport, making for tons of drama, especially when they occur late in the race.

Handling the intense speed best, Sunday, was Kyle Larson. The 24-year-old won the first Sprint Cup race of his career in his 99th attempt, in his third year. He took the checkered flag for Chip Ganassi Racing, which had not won in 99 starts, since October 20, 2013, when Jamie McMurray won at Talladega.

A sport so often tells us, if things are not working out, ceasing efforts never helps.

In the corners

It was good racing, as it was all weekend at MIS, where Sprint Cup drivers enter turns I and II at 215 miles per hour to 220.

If they dare.

If they want to win.

And after they “let up” to negotiate those corners, they stab back down on the throttle, again, the moment they can, to regain that critical speed that is the essence of this sport.

Kyle Larson wins 1st Sprint Cup race at Pure Michigan 400

“It is all about the corners here,” Team Penske driver Joey Logano said, shortly after he won the pole on Friday, before suffering from a poor-handling car Sunday to finish 10th. “That is where most of the speed is.

“You carry momentum through it and that is where you make your passes, if you can maintain momentum.”

In other words, go as fast as possible, almost all of the time, if taking the checkered flag is desired.

The exhilaration of speed and the knowledge of what is going on with the drivers inside of the cars as they try to best a field of competitors is a thrill to watch.

Too many empty seats

For NASCAR, plainly the glory days was the 1990s, when ol’ boy sport was suddenly hip, Hollywood showed up, TV ratings spiked and the stands were full.

Those days have passed.

It was striking to look out from the media center at MIS Sunday, across pit row to the stands at the start/finish line, right under the giant press box, to see lots of empty seats — even more than there was here in June, for the first Sprint Car race of the season, when there also was a lot.

Auto racing, generally, is in a bit of a crisis.

High-technology has drained enough of the art from the proceedings, it seems science and engineering now dictate hard-and-fast results, whether it is NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula One.

The technology also removes the reasons for wins and losses, good pace and too little pace, out of the realm of understanding for the average fan.

It is tough for sports fans when they do not know what is happening, and why.

But, because of the pairing of speed and human performance, racing remains a thrill, and MIS provides for a huge helping of it.

That is why the new package of specifications NASCAR used at both races at MIS hold such promise.

The Chase tightens with two races left

It could restore some of the human element to a sport that has become so highly-technical that too much of the competition occurs on the computers and in the wind tunnels, not on the track.

They may well have to ride in driverless cars, someday; poor, deprived folks! But sports fans are not yet cheering for computers on Sunday afternoons.

Of the new package, Brad Keselowski, the Rochester Hills native, who finished third, said, “I like it a lot, personally.”

His boss, Roger Penske, has talked publicly about the need to adjust motor sports to reintroduce the excitement.

“It’s not perfect, that’s for sure, and there’s a lot of stuff to still work on,” Keselowski said.

“But, I think it’s a small improvement in showcasing drivers’ talent to be able to win races. I think the guys who ran up front today absolutely drove their butts off.

“I saw Kyle and I saw Chase (Elliott, who finished second) and everybody, and their cars are sideways and sometimes smoking the tires through the corners. I think that’s what this racing is built on.

“I think that’s a good direction to move towards, along with other projects this sport is working on to improve the quality of racing for our fans and the future of the sport.”

Twitter: @greggkrupa