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With 2016 rules in flux, Sprint Cup drivers asking whether the 2015 changes are working

Toyota Owners 400

Toyota Owners 400

Alex Trautwig

CONCORD, N.C. – The last time NASCAR’s garage warriors gathered at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there was bubbly chatter over the encouraging signs of a proposed rules package for the 2016 season.

Two months later, the Sprint Cup Series has returned to the 1.5-mile track with a decidedly different tone about where its cars are headed next season.

After unveiling a two-step process last year that would include another reduction in downforce for 2016, NASCAR has backed off and said it might leave the 2015 rules (which featured a drop of 125 horsepower and roughly 30 percent less downforce) in place next year. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said there was some pushback from teams worried about absorbing the costs of the rule changes.

After floating the idea of using the 2016 rules in Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race, NASCAR scrapped the plan last month. Several Goodyear tests of the proposed 2016 alignment were eliminated this week, leaving only an October test at Auto Club Speedway on the books to try next year’s rules.

A March 10 session at Charlotte was the most recent test of the intended rules for 2016. Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Alimrola and JJ Yeley. O’Donnell then said the goal was to develop ways to decrease corner speeds, which have spiked as much as 18 mph this season because drivers are on the throttle longer with reduced horsepower. That often decreases the opportunities for passing in the corners.

Kahne said Friday that he was pleased with how his No. 5 Chevrolet handled during the test.

“I like driving the car by myself way better than the car we have right now,” he said. “You could actually lift (off the accelerator) and move around on the track.

“It was kind of like it was back in 2004 or 2005 with the characteristics of the car and how it was handling. I was remembering things as I was driving. I was like, ‘Man, I used to have this feel.’ We don’t have that feel anymore with all the downforce we have.”

Kahne said, though, there were limits to how much could be learned about the new package in traffic with only four cars participating in the test. Truex said the tire also wasn’t optimum for judging the package.

“I think it was a good direction,” Truex said. “I just don’t think we had the right tire for the package. We didn’t have the right tire; we didn’t have enough cars. It was hard to gauge exactly what was better about it or what was worse about it.

“The four of us that were out there trying to race and see how the car ran in traffic, we didn’t get the feel that we thought we would with less downforce. The off-throttle time was a little bit more, but it seemed like the guy with clean air had more advantage than what we had with the 2015 rules. So, there was nothing clear. I wish we could have done it with more cars and had some more tires for options to really get to work on it because it had some things. The speeds were slower in the middle of the corner, which is what everybody is looking for. We just didn’t have the combination and the amount of guys to really put it to use.”

The feedback on the 2015 package has been a mixed bag, particularly on the 1.5-mile tracks that comprise the bulk of the schedule and where the rules are aimed at enhancing passing. In the four 1.5-mile races this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, green-flag passes dramatically have risen nearly 40 percent – 12,669 in 2015 vs. 9,172 at comparative events in 2014. Lead changes also are up slightly in those four races (91 in 2015 vs. 85 last year)

But the Chevrolets of Jimmie Johnson (wins at Atlanta, Texas, Kansas) and Kevin Harvick (Las Vegas) have dominated the races, and several drivers have grumbled that an overreliance on aerodynamics still is hampering action and putting the leader at a distinct advantage. Friday’s Sprint Showdown at Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval featured segment winner Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer pulling away from the pack and cruising to easy wins.

“I absolutely believe the center-of-the-corner speeds are way too high,” Carl Edwards said last week at Kansas. “I feel like we should be out of the gas a lot more.

“I feel like our whole sport is based on guys racing stock cars around and manhandling the cars and being able to run close. I feel like we’ve gone farther and farther away from that because of all of the knowledge and engineering and the dependence on aero. I know NASCAR wants the same thing we all want. We want the best racing in the world and want it to be exciting, but I do fear we are getting to a point where the cars are so easy to drive and so dependent on clean air and going so fast and relying on engineering, that we are really losing the most fun part of it. I hope NASCAR continues to look at a much less aero-dependent package.”

Brad Keselowski said NASCAR’s quest to improve racing is perpetual.

“You have to keep a vision always,” the 2012 series champion said this week. “The racing can always be better. There’s no question about that. In that spirit, we should always keep working on it. To not work on it is to take a step backward because the teams will always iterate the cars to decrease the quality of competition. That’s our job. This sport requires a year-by-year reset to nullify the damage we do as teams to competition. It’s in itself ‘Spy Vs. Spy’ between the teams and NASCAR. It brings up an interesting discussion of how do you do that every year.

“It seems to me that in the five-and-a-half years I’ve spent in Sprint Cup, that discussion continues to get harder and harder every year with more and more disagreement about how to achieve a strong balance. There are certain things I would like to see for sure that I think can be achieved with cost but reasonable cost, but at this time there doesn’t appear to be enough collaboration to make that happen.’’

Clint Bowyer said the current corner speeds are “exactly opposite of what all the drivers were asking for and hoping for. … You need more off-throttle time to create a racing environment on the race track. If you’re wide open and you’re not lifting, I don’t know how you’re going to get around that car in front of you when they’re doing the same.”