INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jeff Gordon liked what he saw at last weekend's NASCAR's Xfinity Series race.
By reducing horsepower and keeping cars closer together with a special restrictor-plate package on each car, passing played a more prominent role and helped set up a rare dramatic finish on the 2.5-mile track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, once of the longest in NASCAR. Many, including Gordon, thought the overall show was far more entertaining than the stretched out, single-file racing that had become routine on the big oval.
While it certainly wasn't perfect, the change produced some intriguing results and series officials are contemplating using the package for next year's Brickyard 400 and perhaps other venues.
"I think it's a really nice step forward," said Gordon, the retired star and the only five-time winner of the Brickyard. "I'm excited about it. I think flat tracks are a big challenge for NASCAR. If you take a big car like we have, you'll see it's more suited to a high-bank oval. So I think it's important to find a solution to where you're passing and that was a good step."
Restrictor plates are already used at superspeedways such as Talladega and Daytona, leading to more pack racing — and big crashes. Fans who prefer driver skills and team strategy might not care for the wrecks, but there is no doubt that the restrictor-plate races have an element of uncertainty that makes them stand out from the rest of the schedule. That's a valuable feature as attendance lags and television ratings sag, and as familiar names like Gordon, Tony Stewart and, soon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. say goodbye to a series that was once described as America's fastest-growing sports league.
Insiders insist the series remains on solid ground, pointing to an expanding pool of young stars and its passionate fan base.
At the same time, NASCAR must find new ways to get more fans to the tracks even after adding stage racing and the relatively new playoff format. So is plate racing on the table for other venues — and for the top Cup series?
"It's too early to speculate on other tracks (where) this aero package could be used going forward," NASCAR senior vice president for innovation and racing development Gene Stefanyshyn said in a statement to The Associated Press. "With the tremendous racing and record number of lead changes we saw in Indianapolis, it's safe to say we feel like we have additional tools in our tool chest that we can use as needed. We look forward to continue the collaboration with our industry to develop the best possible racing product for our fans at every track."
Ticket sales for NASCAR's Brickyard weekend have dropped since 2008, and fans have not returned in big numbers. The two most common complaints are the midsummer heat and boring races.
The 400 moves to early September next year, which IMS President Doug Boles believes will solve the heat concerns and cooler temperatures also could change the race.
But the track also presents its own challenges.
"This place is so unique with the 90-degree corners," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "We fight a lot of the same issues every time we come here regardless of what the package is, the spoilers on the cars or whatever."
The answer could be a three-pronged plate-package — restrictor plates to slow down cars, aero ducts on the lower front bumper that create larger wake and a taller splitter and rear spoiler package. Xfinity drivers used it last weekend.
"Certainly pleased with what we saw today on the race track," NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell said after 19-year-old William Byron held off Paul Menard by 0.108 seconds. "From an eye test, definitely passed. When you look at the metrics, it's the most leaders we've had, the most lead changes, the closest finish."
Not everyone buys it.
Joey Logano thought the Xfinity race was too slow, and Kyle Busch complained the changes kept the best car off the pole and out of victory lane. Less than an hour later, Busch easily captured his second straight Brickyard pole.
"I'm not a fan of it, I'm not a fan of much these days," Busch said. "I thought what you did was take the fastest car and the fastest guy and brought him back to the pack."
Still, lackluster racing on tracks like Indianapolis and New Hampshire and perhaps Pocono could make them candidates for a change.
"I think on this package, you've got to look at what's a realistic expectation, right? We never thought this would be Daytona or Talladega," O'Donnell said at Indy. "You know, the first objective to us was could you close that gap from first to second? We certainly saw that, you know, with the leader really not getting out that far (Saturday) all day long. "
Gordon thought it worked last weekend. Now he wants to see what the series can do to make the racing more enticing everywhere.
"I think the challenge becomes how do we incorporate that (Indy) package for a one-off?" he said. "Or maybe just here and Pocono or something. But I thought it was exciting."
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