What is now NASCAR's annual rules package experiment for the Sprint Cup became the equivalent of a trapeze act without a net at the Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night. More than a quarter of the field found the wall due to a reduction of 500 pounds of downforce.
The list included stalwarts such as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and much heralded rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
On a night short on excitement -- except for a major fire in a pick-up truck in the parking lot next to the track -- ended with a fuel mileage contest. Winner Brad Keselowski's Ford stumbled twice in the last two laps, but held on to beat the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of fast-closing Carl Edwards by a car length.
Much of the night was a procession of cautions as the rules experiment began to look like a science project gone awry. "I don't think there's a driver here that didn't have a handful at some point in Turn 3 tonight," said third-placed Ryan Newman afterward. In addition to shorter front splitters and rear spoilers and the absence of "skew" in rear suspensions, NASCAR's finest coped with a repaved Kentucky Speedway track and two bouts of rain that helped keep the new asphalt green. Like any new coating of asphalt, only one groove developed, which meant precision was the key.
So less downforce, a narrow groove, a conservative tire from Goodyear due to unknown variables of the pavement and boom! A record-tying 11 cautions broke out before Keselowski won his second straight race for Team Penske.
Oh, yes. There was another culprit. Turn 3 at Kentucky has been more like the eye of a needle compared to other 1.5-mile tracks.
With the increase of banking in Turns 1 and 2 that sped up cars, plus less downforce (and more speed) on the back straight, Turn 3 got a lot more challenging. A cookie cutter track Kentucky is not.
Given that Logano, who won this year's previous two experimental races, fell through the field before clouting the wall after completing only 52 laps, it doesn't seem as if any team or driver has a superior grip on the new low-grip package. While establishing some parity is always a good result for NASCAR, the focus is on making the cars harder to drive.
If some of your best drivers are crashing, it can't be easy goes this line of thinking. There was a time when NASCAR strived to sell tickets and make a name for itself by protecting its biggest stars and teams. Not anymore. One only hopes that NASCAR is not selling crashing these days by simply hacking off aero devices.
"Certainly I think that the downforce package that we got, no matter where we're racing, is going to provide (difficulty for drivers)," said Scott Miller, the senior vice president for competition at NASCAR.
Time will tell if the low, low downforce is in fact too low.
Now committed to testing rules in regular season competition, NASCAR is caught between trying to get new rules for the following season before the Chase starts each year. But not so early in the season as to have an undue influence on teams trying to make the Chase. If the focus is on 1.5-mile tracks, where passing too often seems out of style, there's not too many venues in the summer to choose from for experimenting. Teams and manufacturers want an early start on the following year's rules, too, hence not too many complaints despite all the torn up sheet metal. (Regan Smith, however, as much as put a curse on the Kentucky track after clouting the wall.)
Unless there's a follow-up experiment at another track such as the Darlington Raceway before the Chase begins, Miller all but said what teams ran at Kentucky will be the rules package for non-restrictor plate tracks at the outset of the 2017 season.
"All of this (experimentation) has been geared toward deciding what we're going to do for 2017," he said, "and getting it decided as early as we possibly can, which gives the teams the most runway into next season. Which is something that they've needed and been asking for, so that's what we're striving toward."
Keselowski, Logano and Team Penske have now won all three of this year's experimental low, low downforce or less sideforce races. Logano won the Sprint All-Star Race (which was run without rear skew to cut down on sideforce) and at the Michigan International Speedway (no skew and shorter splitters and spoilers).
In this one, Keselowski, who has two previous Sprint Cup victories at Kentucky, did not have the fastest car compared to the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy of Kevin Harvick, who led five times for 128 laps before a late-race stop for fuel. Before he was penalized for passing on the pit road, Martin Truex, Jr.'s Furniture Row Racing Toyota may have been the fastest. As it was, he catapulted from the back of the field to third place before making a late pit stop for fuel. He led twice for 46 laps and provided the night's most excitement with his spirited charge.
Afterward, Truex, Jr. said he's been speeding up prior to getting to his pit box all year long. (The stop itself prevents a speeding penalty.) But when you pass the leader on the left in the process of taking your last stop and then emerge first from the pit road after coming in second, a common practice gets noticed a lot more easily. And it's a clear cut rule that passing on the left on the pit road is prohibited, one that apparently gets fudged on farther back in the pack.
Once the Chase begins, there will not be any experimentation and the 2016 rules will be used until the end of the season, which will surely be a relief to Chase contenders like Johnson, Logano and likely participant Elliott. The Chase is not likely to include Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. -- at least not on the basis of points -- after his Roush Fenway Racing Ford became one of those to find the wall early. But the slow clawing back of the RFR team continued in Kentucky as Greg Biffle came home sixth -- right behind Tony Stewart, another fuel mileage finisher who needed a good result to secure his place in the Top 30 in points.
In the end, it's difficult to predict which driver and team is going to have a good race on any given afternoon or night. The conditions are the same for everyone, as the saying goes. But one hopes the conditions prevalent at Kentucky are few and far between. And that they don't become commonplace due to super-short front splitters and rear spoilers.