By Jerry Bonkowski
After years of fans, media and even drivers complaining about a lack of good, close racing in the Sprint Cup Series, this past Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway was a true breath of fresh air.
Or should I say a breath of fresh aero?
NASCAR implemented a brand new set of aero rules and an overall package that truly put the race back into racing. It significantly decreased downforce, putting the kind of handling and car control that drivers and fans have pleaded for from NASCAR for years.
As a result, we saw significantly closer side-by-side racing than we typically do, particularly on a 1.5-mile track like Kentucky – where close racing has been a scarce commodity in recent years.
“This direction is the direction we need to go, hands down,” fourth-place finisher Carl Edwards said after the race. “This is the most fun I’ve had at a mile-and-a-half in years. We need more of this.
“You can see guys get real close and they can race, but it still gets a little strung out. But this is way better than what we’ve been running with. I felt like I was actually driving a race car tonight.”
If you need more convincing, let’s look at the numbers:
* There were 22 green flag passes for the lead, a record for the first five Sprint Cup races at Kentucky Speedway. The previous mark was 19 in the inaugural race in 2011, followed by nine in 2012, a record-low six in 2013 and 12 in last year’s race.
* There were 3,216 total green flag passes in the 2011 debut event, but the numbers had fallen off considerably since: 1,849 (2012), 1,650 (2013) and just 1,147 in 2014. Not so on Saturday, as the new rules package made a huge impact with 2,665 passes among the 43 cars in the field.
How can that not convince even the most skeptical race fan?
I mean, I’m not the easiest guy to be swayed or prodded. Frankly, I should have been born in Missouri, because I live by the credo of “show me … before I believe you.”
But with what I saw at Kentucky, I’m sold – signed, sealed and delivered – something that surprised my naturally pessimistic nature.
What’s more, we are going to see several more track-specific aero packages coming up in the next few months.
We’ll see an aero package designed strictly for the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, the mid-August race at Michigan and the Labor Day weekend race at Darlington, for starters.
But wait, there’s more potentially.
At this writing (and weather permitting), more than a dozen Sprint Cup drivers were scheduled to test a track-specific aero package this Wednesday, July 15, at Chicagoland Speedway.
That test was to follow a two-day tire test by Goodyear, to see if the combination of Goodyear rubber and NASCAR’s new aero
If everything goes well, the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup could potentially feature a track-specific aero package, as well.
Wouldn’t that be a great way to kick off NASCAR’s marquee event?
Let’s not stop there: given that half of the 10 Chase races are at 1.5-mile tracks – typically boring 1.5-mile track races – what if NASCAR has track-specific aero packages planned for venues such as Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway?
NASCAR didn’t just hit a home run at Kentucky, it hit a grand slam.
And as the race turned out, Kyle Busch wasn’t the only winner Saturday night. So were the fans.
That was the biggest victory of all – with the promise of even more big wins still ahead.
Jerry Bonkowski writes for NASCAR Talk at NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.