Column: New NASCAR rules package gets early passing grade

(AP Photo/Scott Cunningham)

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) The verdict is still out on NASCAR's new competition package following its innocuous debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The race was not the best in NASCAR history, nor was it unwatchable.

It was, if nothing else, better than last year's race at Atlanta and that is a win for NASCAR right now. Series officials finally conceded last season that the on-track product was failing to attract new fans and needed an overhaul.

The result was a package that reduced horsepower and increased downforce, efforts to bring the cars closer together and present more passing opportunities. What that actually meant on the track was a mystery before Sunday's race at Atlanta, won by Brad Keselowski following his brief bout with a stomach virus.

The trouble with the debut is that Atlanta is unlike any other intermediate track in NASCAR and the asphalt on the 1.54-mile quad-oval is the oldest in the series. The track is rough and bumpy, passing is always difficult and the racing is not likely to be replicated again this season.

So Atlanta was really just a sneak peek of what NASCAR hopes will dramatically improve over its upcoming three-week West Coast swing.

"I'd have to say a solid B. No one gets an A on their first exam, I don't think," winning team owner Roger Penske said.

From his vantage point high above the track on the spotter stand, Penske said, he twice watched Joey Logano pick his way through traffic to the front of the pack. He saw drivers using the preferred top lane slip to the bottom going into Turn 2 and stay there down the straightaway, and the cars generally just seemed under control.

"You didn't see any accidents, which maybe the fans like that, but I thought overall the package showed well," Penske said. "It wasn't a crash-fest, which everybody said it was going to be potentially. It looks like there's a lot of equal cars running out there. It's going to come up to the drivers and the strategy, which is what we want."

The Atlanta race was better than it had been the last several years because the leader did not pull out to an enormous and uncatchable gap.

The 25 lead changes were more than the last three Atlanta races and Martin Truex Jr. was in a legitimate chase for the lead in the closing laps. Truex lost to Keselowski by 0.21 of a second, but even Keselowski admitted he wouldn't have been able to hold off Truex if the race had been any longer.

Restarts bunched the field and led to drivers fanning out three- and four-wide as they jockeyed for position. Eventually they ended up in a single-file line, as is the norm at Atlanta and many other intermediate tracks, but Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick managed to trade the lead several times in a spirited battle at the midway point of the race.

NASCAR was pleased with Sunday's show. Chief racing development offer Steve O'Donnell declared it a "a fairly entertaining race."

But everyone understood that this weekend's race at Las Vegas will be a closer indicator of how the racing will be this year.

"When you looked at this race going in, I think for us, this was the biggest question mark as to how it would play out," O'Donnell said. "Ultimately, we wanted cars to run closer together, we wanted a battle to play out for the lead at times, which we saw during the race. Some things certainly to work on, but ultimately I think it was the direction where we wanted to go."

NASCAR will use a complete version of the rules package in Las Vegas, where featured aero ducts will likely encourage drafting. It could make Las Vegas look a bit like the crash-filled Daytona 500, where pack racing leads to spectacular multi-car accidents that always change the dynamic of a race.

Teams won't have a clear idea for weeks on how to attack this rules package because the next three races are at wildly different venues that present their own challenges. Drivers are adapting to different handling and lower horsepower while crew chiefs are tinkering with setups.

NASCAR remains optimistic the fans will be the ultimate winners.

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Updated February 25, 2019

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