On Sunday the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debuted their new rules package at Atlanta Motor Speedway and it came with mixed reviews. Entering the race drivers and fans alike were unsure of what it would look like on the track. Leaving the race there is a large gap between those who liked it and those who didn’t. All things considered though, Sunday was a step in the right direction for NASCAR.
Let’s start with the final round of practice in Atlanta on Saturday. Clint Bowyer dominated pretty much everything coming into the race on Sunday but it was the final practice on Saturday that gave us an indication of what this new package might do. Amongst the top-15 drivers in that final practice were several of the names that we expected and a few that we didn’t. Ty Dillon (15th), Daniel Hemric (8th), Corey Lajoie (5th) and Michael McDowell (4th) all found their way towards the top of the charts, something that has a lot to do with the new package. That trend continued into the race on Sunday with Hemric, Chris Buescher and Ryan Preece. Buescher finished inside of the top-10 (9th) and Preece was running there (7th) with 60 laps to go before wrecking on pit road. Hemric was in and out of the top-15 all day before finishing 20th. I’m not saying the new package is going to produce a ton a different winners but one race in and it’s clear that it’s already leveling the playing field a bit.
Another plus of the new package in Atlanta was the emphasis that it placed on clean air and drivers avoiding mistakes. At different points in the race on Sunday Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola looked dominant. Then, both drivers ended up speeding on pit road, were sent to the back of the pack, and were basically not heard from again. While both had top-12 finishes, neither was able to get back into the top-three after being forced to drive through traffic and dirty air. Even Kyle Busch (who is known for driving through the field seemingly at will sometimes) struggled to drive through the field after starting towards the back with 100 laps to go. Although Busch had the most success in doing it, he still only managed to finish 6th.
Even more encouraging are the restarts that this package produced on Sunday. Often times in the past the con of cars struggling in dirty air was that those in clean air drove away from the field. At times on Sunday that was the case and it could be the case at other times this season. However, each restart provided quality racing that often resulted in three-wide battles. It’s also worth noting that what we saw in Atlanta isn’t the final product of this new package because the cars didn’t have the front air ducts that they will have moving forward. Add into the mix the fact that the Atlanta racing surface is hot garbage and tire wear was an issue; and it’s hard to not be optimistic about the next three races (Las Vegas, California and Phoenix). The 1.5-mile tracks with newer surfaces should produce a better racing product since tire wear/handling won’t be as much of an issue as it was given the surface at Atlanta. Even with the older surface and the tire wear, drivers were still able to take each other four-wide at times, using multiple lines all over the track.
Was the on-track action in Atlanta on Sunday exactly what we were all hoping for? No, most likely not. However, it would be unfair to say that there aren’t encouraging things to take away from what the package produced. The next three weeks will go a long way when it comes to measuring the success of this new package. In the meantime let’s be happy that NASCAR is making an attempt fix the on-track product and let’s wait and see what the next few weeks produce before we decide how we all feel.