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NASCAR’s Thrilling All-Star Event Brings Sport to Internal Struggle

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The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has primarily been forgettable to this point. Of course, there have been some exciting and notable moments for the Cup tour this year — Austin Dillon’s dump and run to win the Daytona 500 is one of them. But for a sport trying to find its footing after years of declining TV ratings, drops in attendance and the departure of its superstars, the racing merely has not been able to live up to expectations. And it seems as if NASCAR knows it.

Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star race was something different. With a new rules package that featured a restrictor plate and body modifications to increase drag and downforce to promote closer racing and slingshot passing, the All-Star race, for once in a long time, met the hype.

The event, simply put, was thrilling. Considering Charlotte Motor Speedway’s lack of entertaining racing in its recent Cup events, this race looked as if it were at a new venue. Drivers were able to slingshot for the lead, frequently race three wide, draft with other cars to advance their position, and unlike so many races in recent memory, the leader never got away from the field. As Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer said after the event, “it passed the eye test.”

But it also passed the data test, too. In 2018, the All-Star race featured 38 green flag passes for the lead. In 2017, there were zero.

So what’s next? In what is clearly a much more entertaining rules package and considering NASCAR’s track record of constant tweaks to the rule book, the conversation immediately moves to when and how much this package will be used in the future.

Intermediate tracks like Charlotte have been the bane of NASCAR’s existence in recent years. As the most common track on the schedule, these 1.5-mile speedways don’t entertain and certainly haven’t been giving NASCAR the boost it so desperately needs.

It would seem like a no-brainer for NASCAR to implement this rules package as soon as possible, which would likely be 2019 to give teams enough notice, which is fair. But, unfortunately for the fans that enjoyed what they saw on Saturday, even this looks like a challenge because of a lack of buy-in from the drivers.

“I hate to admit it, but the package was kinda fun,” Kyle Larson told FS1 following the event. “I’d hate to go this slow every week, but for select tracks, it was pretty good.”

The morning after the event, Brad Keselowski echoed similar thoughts on Twitter.

And before the race, Kyle Busch gave his point of view, as reported by Motorsport.com.

“I can certainly see it (used more), it’s not necessarily what I signed up for to be a race car driver to bring the whole field closer together and have it dictated by some type of a plate race.”

So this is where the sport’s internal struggle is. NASCAR, after years of constant tweaks to the rules package to make events more compelling, finally found something that could be worth pursuing, but there are already subtle hints about keeping it as limited as possible. Granted, it’s only been one race, so it’s early to make these decisions on either side. Still, it’s hard not get excited about what we saw on Saturday. 

People who oppose this rules package argue that slowing the cars down this much makes them too easy to drive and perhaps too much of a gimmick at NASCAR’s highest level. However, the best car and driver of the season, Kevin Harvick, was still able to win Saturday – and while there were many lead changes in the event, he was indeed not easy to pass, or keep behind.

The series runs at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway every year, arguably the extreme of what Charlotte produced on Saturday, yet the same drivers tend to compete and contend for those races. The competitive drivers will always rise to the top. That doesn’t seem gimmicky.

NASCAR has prided itself on increased collaboration with drivers, teams, manufacturers, and other partners in the recent years — that’s great news for the sport. But while NASCAR has to listen to these parties, they also have to govern with what they believe will work best overall. Sometimes, that isn’t what works for the drivers.

Having Saturday’s rules package implemented in some form and for multiple events throughout the year, certainly more than just the All-Star race, would be a huge win for NASCAR and its fans. The sport needs compelling races, and if there are no plans for the schedule to change anytime soon, then something else has to.

The way this rules package will be integrated into NASCAR on a regular basis is undoubtedly complex and to be determined. This method likely won’t work at all intermediate tracks, but preventing the sport from trying it only because drivers don’t want the field to be closer together wouldn’t be fair to fans.

It will likely be some time before NASCAR determines any concrete next steps for the package, but one thing is for sure: once you presented it to the public, you can’t take it away.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

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Travis Barend

A 2016 graduate of SUNY Oswego in upstate New York, Travis Barend now resides in the New York City area, working as an Account Associate for Highwire PR, a public relations agency representing high-tech, disruptive brands. As a contributor to POPULAR SPEED, Travis continues his journey of motorsports writing, which began in his high school days when he created his own blog specifically for the topic. Later writing for SpeedwayMedia.com and a blog for Eutechnyx, the former NASCAR video game developer, Travis continues to follow his motorsports passion by occasionally sharing his thoughts on the matter.