NASCAR & Auto Racing

Column: NASCAR should question its questionable new rules after dull Martinsville race

Brad Keselowski celebrates with the grandfather clock trophy Sunday after winning a lackluster NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.
Brad Keselowski celebrates with the grandfather clock trophy Sunday after winning a lackluster NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway. AP

Maybe this isn’t the scientific method, but it darn sure does illustrate a point:

After every NASCAR Cup Series race, motorsports reporter Jeff Gluck — formerly of USA Today — conducts an online poll with his nearly 200,000 Twitter followers called, ”Was It A Good Race?’” Simple enough concept. Fans vote yes or no, and Gluck compiles the results in a table dating back to 2016.

It’s a smart idea, and Gluck deserves a lot of credit for it. Measuring television ratings is one way to see how many people are watching NASCAR races, but not what they’re thinking while they’re watching.

And coming into Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, three of the top 10 races in Gluck’s poll were at Martinsville: last year’s fall race, with its epic Joey Logano-Martin Truex Jr. conclusion, plus both races in 2017. With three separate winners, plus fairly similar races times, you can put the credit for that on one thing:

Martinsville. It’s just a fun place to race, and a fun race to watch.

Only, Sunday’s race wasn’t.

And it’s not the track’s fault.

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To be blunt, NASCAR has a problem: its new rules package. The package, which altered the cars’ aerodynamics and horsepower, was supposed to make the racing better by slowing down the cars and, to some extent, leveling the playing field. Rather than letting one car just run far out ahead of everyone else, the thought was to stimulate more passing — especially passes for the lead — and better overall competition.

That has not happened. It’s now been five races with these new rules, and ... well, let’s call it what it is.

Boring.

Instead of working as they were intended to, here’s actually what has happened with the new rules: Cars might not be driving away from one another, but they also don’t have the extra gear to pass each other. The leader may only be ahead by a car length instead of eight, but it doesn’t matter how far ahead someone is if you can’t catch them.

“It just seems like everybody’s really even now,” said Chase Elliott, Sunday’s runner-up. “Like those top handful of cars, you have your car balance pretty close and it’s just hard to be different. I felt like that made it really tough.”

That’s how Brad Keselowski ended up leading for nearly 450 of 500 laps, even though he admitted he didn’t have the best car in the field. He basically got out front, and even though Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch had enough speed to get to his rear bumper, they didn’t have more than that, which is what it takes to pass someone.

“It’s like once you get so close, that’s it. You can’t do any more,” Busch said. “It was tougher today, for sure, than usual.”

But here’s the most damning part of this whole rules mess. Martinsville, a half-mile track, shouldn’t be that adversely affected by it. The cars are already slow enough — they get down to 55-60 mph in the corners — that there’s really no need to slow them down more. Yet, as Denny Hamlin alluded to, they still were.

“If (there’s) any track where the aero package is not really gonna matter for passing, it would be here. So anywhere that gets a little faster in speed, it’s going to be that much harder,” Hamlin said. “The higher the speeds, the more these aerodynamics take effect and the harder it will be to pass.”

Translation: If Martinsville was affected by this package, every track will be. Which means, unfortunately for NASCAR and its fans, more boring racing.

NASCAR said before the season that it would be willing to adjust and potentially amend these rules based on how things played out. Good on NASCAR for being willing to make those sorts of changes. But now, it’s time to put their money where their mouth is and actually make them.

After five races, NASCAR must question its questionable rules package. The racing may not be bad... but it sure as heck ain’t good.

And when that was the whole point of these rules — making the racing better — it’s a lot harder to swallow how underwhelming the start to this season has been.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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