CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What a different NASCAR we have now.
The sport so married to a dictator-style reign, so resistant to meaningful change and so slow to take a stance on anything that might alienate its fan base has seemingly been turned upside down in a matter of days.
In just the past month alone, chairman Brian France has taken a strong stance on a pair of social issues, including his desire to eliminate the Confederate flag at NASCAR events. His position is in stark contrast to NASCAR’s Southern roots, and will be slow to be totally embraced by fans. And last week when Ben Kennedy, great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., was involved in an accident at Kentucky Speedway, nearly every replay featured a shot of “The Stars and Bars” waving at the bottom of the screen.
So it may take some time for NASCAR’s position to make a meaningful difference, but France is strongly in favor of separating his series from the negative connotation of the flag regardless of how long it takes.
Same goes for improving the on-track product, which, by the way, looked a much improved Saturday night at Kentucky.
The race was the first for new rules packages that have been earmarked for trial at four different tracks. This package of lower downforce was specifically recommended by the drivers, who somehow persuaded NASCAR to allow them to form a panel that has engaged in meaningful discussion with series leaders.
Don’t confuse the driver council with unionization, something NASCAR has never allowed. Curtis Turner and Tim Flock in 1961 were both banned for life — Turner’s was eventually lifted — for trying to form the Federation of Professional Athletes and second-tier drivers were used at Talladega Superspeedway during a one-week boycott in 1969 as drivers tried to form the Professional Drivers Association.
But times have clearly changed, with three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart even positioning present day NASCAR in “kind of a crisis situation” because of the uninspired racing.
So NASCAR allowed the drivers to create a panel that they selected themselves by vote. Drivers were grouped in tiers and every manufacturer had to be represented. The first meeting, last month at Dover, put in motion the lower downforce package that was used at Kentucky.
A second meeting at Daytona a week before the race opened the door for the use of a similar rules package at Darlington next month, one that features higher drag at Indianapolis and Michigan, and a new tire at Richmond.
Drivers seemed genuinely pleased with the open dialogue with NASCAR, but cautioned not to expect much from Saturday night’s race at Kentucky. At issue was Goodyear’s delay in being able to produce a tire to match the lower downforce package, and driver council member Dale Earnhardt Jr. warned: “I’m not expecting Kentucky to reveal a lot of obvious answers on the direction we need to go.”
It’s not clear why Earnhardt tried to temper the waters for Kentucky, but it seemed as if NASCAR expected the driver-driven rules package to fail. That’s not a surprise because it’s an opposite path than the one taken by the series leaders tasked with improving the racing.
The data from Saturday night — data are always open to interpretation — suggested the drivers have been right all along in what creates the best racing. There were 2,665 green-flag passes throughout the field, compared with 1,147 last year at Kentucky. There were also a record 22 green-flag passes for the lead, up from the record of 19 set in 2011.
The racing drew raves from winner Kyle Busch. Before you say “of course the winner liked it,” remember he’s the guy who widely panned the Car of Tomorrow when he won in the debut race of that car.
Denny Hamlin, one of the drivers credited for the push to create the driver council, was down two laps at one point Saturday night and finished third.
“This is what race car driving’s all about. I feel like now it’s back in the driver and crew chief’s hands to get their car handling like it’s supposed to,” he said. “It’s not just an arms race of who can build the fastest cars in the shop.”
Even Clint Bowyer, stuck in a miserable season, seemed pleased after a 19th-place finish.
“I hope the fans enjoyed that because I sure did,” Bowyer said.
This is a new era in NASCAR, a time when NASCAR is committed to doing the right thing. France made the right decision with his stance on the Confederate flag, and collecting driver input is a very strong step in the right direction.
The key now is not to fear bigger and bolder steps moving forward — even if they come at the suggestion of the drivers.