Each week, it seems that the competition level in NASCAR picks up as the speeds between each competitor is closer and closer. Everybody is looking for that little bit of speed so therefore they can be the driver that goes to victory lane.
“The cars, they’re so equal now,” NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick says. “You see some pretty aggressive driving. They’ve let the drivers kind of ‘boys have at it’ a little bit, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.”
NASCAR has also made changes that have helped improve the competition level over the past few seasons, in which many fans have applauded. One of the biggest being that each restart during a race is double-file.
“I think the double-file restarts have brought a lot of excitement to the sport,” Hendrick says. “If you look at how many races are won or lost right after the restart.”
One of the most memorable last race restarts that changed the outcome of the race was at Martinsville this year when a late caution would come out with three laps to go would come out for David Reuitmann stalling on the track. The race looked to be between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson before that, as they had a pretty good lead on the rest of the field. Under the caution, they both chose to stay out well the rest of the lead lap cars pitted for tires.
The race would not end in their favor as Clint Bowyer went for the jump when both Gordon and Johnson didn’t go on old tires, diving under both of them in turn one. The result was all three cars going for a spin, while Ryan Newman snuck his way through. Newman would hold off A.J. Allmendinger on an additional green white checkered for the win.
“We were not a dominant race car today but we put ourselves in contention,” Newman said after the race. “The way the strategy and everything worked out, coming in for two tires and Clint kind of clearing out turn one for us, we were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”
You’ve then also got the wave around, which has allowed drivers to get a lap back and start at the tail end of the field if they do not pit. This has allowed guys to get themselves back in contention and if they have a strong car, get a good finish or even win.
There’s also the lucky dog rule, which allows the first car a lap down to get her/his lap back, whether a pit stop is made or not. Six drivers have won after receiving the lucky dog pass – Ryan Newman (Dover 2003, June 2004), Mark Martin (Dover 2004), Jeff Gordon (Martinsville 2005), Kyle Busch (Phoenix 2005, Talladega 2008), Kurt Busch (Bristol 2006), Kasey Kahne (Michigan 2006) and Joey Logano (New Hampshire 2009).
There are more improvements coming as the cars are going to look more like street cars come next year, as a result of a request from the fans.
Though now what NASCAR is banking on is that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway helps build momentum for the sport and more fans start coming to races. Hendrick believes this will happen as seeing Earnhardt Jr. run for the championship will just build the sport by increasing the TV ratings and fans in the seats.
“We have been bombarded yesterday with emails and different blogs to our sites all over about Junior Nation is having Christmas early this year,” Hendrick says. “It’s fun because they’ve waited. They’re loyal fans. He cares about them.
“I think that has bothered him more than anything else, that his fan base, he didn’t feel like he was getting it done for them. I think now that’s got him pumped up. He’s very confident. I mean, our guys said they were still partying when the trucks left Michigan.
“I think you’ll see it at these races, when he’s introduced, he takes the lead again, you’ll see his fan base on their feet. It’s good for the sport. It’s good for him. I think it helps everybody.”
Now with the series going to its first road course event of the season at Sonoma, its all about keeping that momentum going for the sport. In the past, there’s been competitive racing at the road courses that has some times brought out some tempers in drivers. Steve LeTarte, crew chief for Earnhardt Jr., says teams go there to win now, instead of just looking to survive.
“The double-file restarts increases tempers,” LeTarte adds. “You hear all the time about wanting to race for wins. Sonoma is a perfect example of how hard everyone races every lap to get the best finish possible.”
Hendrick adds that because the road courses don’t have a lot of opportunities to pass despite there being lots of corners, it pushes guys to drive their cars harder and try to out-break each other going into a corner.
“Our cars, we tear them up more at this race than we do anywhere other than maybe Talladega and Daytona,” Hendrick adds. “I mean, our bodies are beat off of the cars when the race is over. It’s just because it’s really tight-corner racing, they’re on top of each other, pushing and shoving. It’s a very aggressive way to race. But that’s the only option they have.”