Craig Murto

Craig Murto

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ran its first race of the season with the new 2019 rules package, and most agree the race was more competitive than in recent years.

Brad Keselowski held off the flu and a hard-charging Martin Truex Jr., who later blamed lapped traffic for not giving him the chance to take the win.

For Keselowski, the race was important because he passes the late, great Mark Donohue as the top winner for car owner Roger Penske, winning 27 races for Penske Racing. For NASCAR, the race statistics indicate a competitive race. A number of drivers led, and there were 35 passes for the lead with 25 officially scored lead changes.

Expect the next race in Las Vegas to be entirely different than the race at Atlanta. It’s not just because Atlanta tears up tires more than most tracks, or the fact that even though the appearance of the circuits is similar, they drive differently. The race will be different because the cars will be different.

The Daytona 500 was the last race to be run with old rules. Every race the rest of the season will run with new rules. But it’s actually three different rules packages in competition, as NASCAR determines what is best and hopefully settles on a single rules package moving forward.

Restrictor plates are gone, even on the 2.5-mile circuits. Instead, a tapered spacer is used to choke airflow and reduce horsepower. Most tracks will be raced on with 550 horsepower, but others – short tracks and road courses – will be allowed 750 horsepower.

The spoiler at the rear of the car is now a staggering 8 inches tall. That punches a large hole in the air and allows for better drafting, even at tracks such as Atlanta. But missing at Atlanta were the new aero ducts in the nose of the cars, meant to increase downforce and allow the cars to draft closer together without suffering the “aero push” drivers complain about so often. Due to Atlanta’s abrasive surface, the aero ducts were abandoned so teams could flow more air to the braking system and the extra downforce in the front wouldn’t damage tires.

But in Las Vegas we will see the aero ducts, which, if it works out as NASCAR hopes, should lead to the type of pack racing we saw in last year’s all-star race at Charlotte. That package – 550 horsepower with the aero ducts – will be on the cars at Daytona and Talladega later this year, replacing the old restrictor-plate package.

But following Las Vegas, the Cup Series travels to Phoenix, where they again run without the aero ducts, and run with 750 horsepower. All of the races moving forward use variations of the tapered spacer, as without it the cars could produce upward of 950 horsepower.

The 550-horsepower package without the aero ducts will run at Pocono, Darlington, and Homestead-Miami for the season’s championship round. The 550-horsepower package with the aero ducts will compete at Auto Club Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas, Charlotte, Michigan, Chicagoland, Daytona, Kentucky, Indianapolis and Talladega. The 750-horsepower package without aero ducts will run at Phoenix, Martinsville, Bristol, Richmond, Dover, Sonoma, New Hampshire, Watkins Glen and the Charlotte Roval.

If one of NASCAR’s goals is to save teams money, hopefully this season is just a big test session as they gather data and decide on a single rule moving forward. But NASCAR could also take other steps, such as ban wind tunnel testing. Time will tell how serious the effort to save teams money truly is.

There have been some negative comments about the high-downforce package and the variations in use. One of the criticisms, from drivers and fans, is that it makes the cars easier to drive, therefore taking away the advantage a better driver may have.

But as much as any sport is an athletic competition, it’s also entertainment. Nearly 85 percent of fans polled after last year’s all-star race liked what they saw. They liked the pack racing and the close competition.

If the sport is going to survive, fans are going to have to like what they see. So it’s easy to understand why NASCAR pursues the high-downforce package. They’re hoping to replicate as much as possible what fans saw at Charlotte for the all-star race, and do it each and every week.

Every race won’t be a barn burner. But hopefully, after the test session of 2019, NASCAR will come up with a single rules package that provides the best competition possible at every circuit.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.