ThatsRacin

Why NASCAR’s new rules package could be a turning point in the sport’s modern history

Brad Keselowski does a burnout after winning last week at Atlanta. More will be known about NASCAR’s new rules package this week at Las Vegas.
Brad Keselowski does a burnout after winning last week at Atlanta. More will be known about NASCAR’s new rules package this week at Las Vegas. AP

Change, change, it is a’coming.

That’s both on a micro- and macro-level as far as NASCAR is concerned. And truthfully, how things go this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will go a long way toward determining the fate of both those cycles of change.

The micro, although it may not seem like it, is NASCAR’s new rules package, which goes into full effect this third weekend of the Cup Series season. In technical terms, it’s a lower horsepower package with a much taller rear spoiler — 8 inches, compared to 2.375 in 2018 — and more pronounced front splitter, both of which are intended to increase downforce and drag.

In simpler terms, slower cars that allow for closer racing and more passes, especially for the lead.

Or at least that’s what it’s intended to do.

Whether or not it will, after a limited version of the package debuted at Atlanta last weekend, is up for debate. Really, there’s no knowing how the package will manifest with 40 cars on the track until... well, until there’s 40 cars on the track. And even then, it’ll take some time to hamper down the specifications of everything.

Loosely, this new package will — or rather, should — look something like last season’s All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, widely lauded by fans and the media as one of the year’s more exciting events.

That’s the ticket for NASCAR right now: excitement. Anything it can do to distinguish itself from the gobs of other available entertainment options is a win, and this rules package, if it does in fact produce tighter racing, certainly would qualify.

Again, if.

But the success or failure of this year’s new rules package, unfairly or not, won’t be judged just for its ramifications on the track.

Making such a drastic change to these cars represents a major, fundamental change in NASCAR’s status quo. Maybe this isn’t quite a 4-point shot in basketball or an extra down in football, but it’s just one step below that. It’s rocking the boat, at a time when that is more encouraged than ever.

And why? Because it all goes back to the big ticket: excitement. Standing out. Making it impossible for fans not to watch. This package is a gamble for NASCAR, but undoubtedly a gamble worth taking if it slows or reverses the sport’s exodus of fans.

That’s why this package, more than just if it makes the racing better or not, is so crucial. If NASCAR takes this massive risk and everything keeps declining — attendance, TV ratings, relevancy nationwide — then this new package, rightfully or not, is going to bear some of the burden of that. More importantly, change in general will bear that burden.

But say it does work. Say the racing is better, more dramatic, more “can’t-miss-TV” than anything the sport has produced in years? Then it’s a double win for NASCAR: a better product, but also internal validation that yes, dramatic change does work.

That is the mindset NASCAR, a once-great sports entity vying for salvation in an over-saturated sports landscape, must adapt. What’s that old business saying — “Change or die?” That’s about where NASCAR sits right now, eagerly awaiting to see if its first major gamble pays off.

If it does, expect more to follow. At least, that would be the intelligent course of action (and NASCAR’s new president, Steve Phelps, is an intelligent man willing to do so). Listen to the things fans are clamoring for — shorter races and a revamped (or reduced) schedule, to start — and respond with confidence.

No, these aren’t easy fixes. These are big, dramatic, sweeping changes that fans are asking for. But so too was a better product.

Las Vegas won’t be the lone barometer for this new rules package’s success, but it absolutely will be a crucial first impression.

And if all goes well, a crucial first step for NASCAR to undertake more signficant changes.

The key word there: if.

This week’s NASCAR race at Las Vegas: What you need to know.

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube.

Distance: 267 laps, or 400.5 miles.

Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile asphalt tri-oval in Las Vegas, Nevada.

When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

TV: FOX.

Radio: PRN.

Last year’s winner: Kevin Harvick.

Also this week: Boyd Gaming 300, Xfinity Series, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 4 p.m., Saturday, FS1.

Worth mentioning: The past two winners of this race (Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.) have gone on to make NASCAR’s championship four at Homestead.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Brad Keselowski: Winning in the second race of the year is one thing, but doing it while violently ill is that much more impressive.

Kyle Larson: He’s already won four stages and led the most laps of any driver this year, and was well-positioned to win at Atlanta before a costly pit penalty.

NOT

Bubba Wallace: He showed flashes of quality in his rookie season last year, but couldn’t have gotten off to a more disappointing start this year — he’s currently behind drivers in the standings who only ran the Daytona 500.

Austin Dillon: Without a 500 win to buoy him this season, expect things to go from bad to worse, fast.

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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