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Five things to watch in tonight’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway

Bojangles' Southern 500

Bojangles’ Southern 500

NASCAR via Getty Images

DARLINGTON, S.C. – With sincere apologies to the NASCAR number-crunchers who faithfully and fastidiously compile loop data, Sprint Cup drivers have a simpler suggestion for measuring the quality of tonight’s Southern 500.

Ignore the statistics. Count the spins.

“I personally always feel like you can always measure the best racing based on how many times you see someone spin out by themselves,” said Brad Keselowski, whose No. 2 Ford will lead the field to the green as the pole-sitter at Darlington Raceway. “If you go a whole weekend and nobody spins out by themselves, then the cars are driving too good to me. If you go a whole weekend and 30 people spin out by themselves, then the cars aren’t driving right. I feel like there is a magic number for our races as to how many people wreck by themselves.

“When you hit that number just right you almost always see the best racing.”

The quality of tonight’s show will be integral in determining the direction of the rules in NASCAR’s premier series next season. The 500-mile race will mark the last use of a low-downforce approach before returning to the standard rules for the final 11 races of the 2015 season.

A reduction in downforce and horsepower resulted in drivers often complaining about a lack of off-throttle time that made passing difficult while keeping cars glued to the track and the leader often comfortably ahead of the field.

But the debut of the low-downforce package in the July 11 race at Kentucky delivered a 132-percent increase in green-flag passes and a track-record 22 green-flag lead changes.

Better yet, it made the cars more difficult to drive – producing 11 caution flags, including five for single-car accidents.

“Over the past year or two, it has been pretty rare that you see somebody spin out by themselves,” Keselowski said. “I was rewatching the Kentucky race, (and) there were four or five people that spun out by themselves. That means the cars and drivers are right at their limit. When you hit that sweet spot, that is when the racing is really strong and compelling to watch.”

With NASCAR poised to announce its 2016 rules probably by the end of this month and no later than mid-October, Darlington will have a major impact on the frequency of low downforce – particularly if the feedback is as strong as it was in Kentucky.

“My hope is it’s something that stays in our sport permanently,” said Denny Hamlin, a member of the drivers’ council that regularly has become meeting with NASCAR brass to discuss big-picture issues. “We found at Kentucky that’s the way we need to go, reducing the size of the backs of these race cars.

“Ultimately, the cars way back in the day were really small in the back, and so the trailing car had more air getting to it. That’s something we need to look at going forward is making the backs of these cars as small as possible to make it where it’s not such an advantage being out front.”

Though there have been no firm indication of the plan, it seems likely it’ll center on more track-specific rules designed to a circuit’s length, speed and banking. The only certainty is that there’ll be no return of the high-drag package that flopped at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway.

“We need to do the best job to understand what each race track wants and what won’t be too costly for the teams,” said Kurt Busch who will start second Sunday. “But putting on a good show is not necessarily looking at a survey for green-flag passes or lead changes. Looking at statistics, that’s one thing, but all the other racetracks have their own unique characteristics, and they might need their own balance. But we also have to keep the costs under control and not be switching it back and forth too randomly.

“As a group, I think we can come up with a collective solution. And I do see (low downforce) coming into play next year.”

Keselowski said the Southern 500 will be a validation of why.

“If I win, then I want to be able to look anyone in the media or look at a fan and be able to feel like I earned it,” he said. “This is a step in that direction and I feel like whoever will win this race, with more likelihood than previously, will have earned it. And that is exactly why this is the right direction to go.

“You want to see people who end up in victory lane as the guys that earned the win. That is what true competition is. This rules package in a sense is an acknowledgement toward that.”

Other storylines to watch:

--Kurt Busch’s pit stops: The Stewart-Haas racing driver will be the first to use a digital dashboard that will become mandatory next season. While Busch won’t have access to any special data, he will have a precise tachometer reading that might make him the envy of the field during pit stops.

Because their cars aren’t equipped with speedometers, drivers must judge their speed in the pits off tachometer readings on gauges that often are off by 300 to 400 revolutions per minutes. Busch’s will be exact, which could be critical to avoid running afoul of NASCAR’s electronic monitoring of the pits.

--Clint Bowyer v. Jeff Gordon: The two drivers nearest to sliding off the Chase for the Sprint Cup bubble seemingly are in comfortable position with two races remaining in the regular season. But with the embers still faintly burning from a feud that started three years ago, the pressures of staying in title contention could trigger a flare-up between a star trying to end his career with a flourish and another facing an uncertain future.

--Clinch mode: It’s been the summer of Kyle Busch with four wins in 13 starts since returning from injures that sidelined him for the first 11 races. Sunday could mark another highlight even without a checkered flag: Busch will secure a spot in the Chase with a strong finish Sunday.

--Tire talk: Unlike Kentucky, there was time for Goodyear to manufacture purpose-built tires that should provide more comfort and grip with the lower-downforce rules. But there still will be complaining aplenty about tires that are wearing more quickly as the track surface returns to its more abrasive origins.