Ten races into 2016, new rules, close racing have drivers excited about the NASCAR product

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 21:  Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, leads the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 21: Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, leads the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Who knew at the time that Denny Hamlin’s razor-thin margin of victory in the Daytona 500 would be emblematic of the 2016 season?

With a bold move off Turn 4, Hamlin got to the finish line roughly six inches ahead of Martin Truex Jr. The official margin of victory was .010 seconds, tied for seventh closest in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

Two weeks later, Kevin Harvick would duplicate that winning margin when he triumphed in a drag race to the stripe against Carl Edwards at Phoenix.

NASCAR drivers and fans alike have heralded the quality of racing this season, and there are plenty of statistics to reinforce their empirical observations. Seven of the first nine featured victory margins of less than one second, the exceptions being Atlanta, which ended under caution after 28 lead changes, and Texas, where Kyle Busch pulled away to win by 3.904 seconds after 17 lead changes.

The seven races decided by less than a second are the most through nine events since the introduction of electronic timing and scoring.

Three races this year have set records for green-flag passes for the lead, a loop data statistic that includes intra-lap passes: Atlanta (44), Auto Club Speedway (51) and Bristol (40).

The 10th race of the season, Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, featured 213 green-flag passes for the lead, the second most since the inception of loop data in 2005 and only the second time that number has topped 200. The record of 219 was set at Talladega in October 2013.

The bottom line is that 2016 already has seen a ramped-up level of competition that has drivers routinely extolling the quality of the racing. On more than one occasion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has climbed from his car after a race and waxed eloquent about the fun he’s having this year.

The question is “Why?”

By all accounts, the new lower-downforce competition package NASCAR has implemented this season has made a huge difference. For one thing, Earnhardt says, it feeds into the egos of the drivers.

“Man, they are way harder to drive,” Earnhardt told the NASCAR Wire Service. “This seems weird to me, but it’s what you want. I don’t know if that makes sense to someone who’s not a race car driver, but you want it to be hard, because all the guys in the garage think they’re the best driver in the garage. And the harder we can make it, the better shot each one of them thinks they’ve got at winning, right?

“So all of us are like, ‘Make it harder; make it harder, because that helps me.’ That’s pretty much the mentality in there. And so, I think you see in my conversations with the fans a little bit, they’re seeing the cars move around. That’s something they hadn’t seen in a while. They’re seeing the drivers wrestle with the cars a little more, which is important, to having a more exciting product.

“And if they can figure out a way to capture more of that, particularly with the television audience, I think we will be going in the right direction. But, yeah, the cars are way slicker, they’re harder to drive, they slide around on top of the track whereas in the past, they felt forced into the track and felt much more comfortable.”

Another contributing factor is the job Goodyear has done in matching tires chosen for particular tracks with the lower-downforce rules package. Drivers and crew chiefs have long advocated for greater fall-off throughout a fuel run, and the racing this year has enhanced that aspect of competition.

The new package also has reduced the effect of “aero-push,” which in the past inhibited drivers’ ability to approach and pass a slightly slower car.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve noticed is just the ability to race well in traffic, the ability to run fast behind a car,” Truex said. “If you run a guy down, you don’t hit that wall (of air) three or four cars back and just can’t go as fast as you were going before. It gives you a lot more options in traffic, a lot more passing going on.

“A few years ago, when we had a really lot of downforce, when they dropped the green flag for the race and if you were mid-pack, you were out of control and you couldn’t go anywhere, and I’ve seen a lot less of that. Obviously, the tires are a big, big part of what we’re doing with the low downforce with the tires wearing out and the car slowing down as the run goes on. It’s really opened up a lot of opportunities.”

Tire management, too, has become a much more important issue, because the lower downforce has given Goodyear the latitude to bring generally softer compounds to the track.

“We’ve seen some of the races where guys that maybe aren’t some of the fastest cars or don’t have really good speed throughout the weekend all the sudden 15, 20 laps in a run, they start coming to the front because their cars handle well,” Truex said. “So it’s just given guys a lot more opportunities to pass and to make the racing exciting.

“I feel like it’s been a lot more fun to drive the cars. It’s been a lot more fun to race with people, moving around, finding new grooves, and I thought ‘Just look at what we saw at Richmond…’ That was the first time in years that we’ve run anywhere except for the bottom, you know?

“We ran all over the track and that’s just highly unlikely for Richmond typically, so I think it’s been really good. I feel like the races have been exciting and a lot more fun than past years, and I think they will just continue to get better as we take downforce off and make the tires softer yet.”

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